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Farmer Brings Freshest Produce to Chefs

Fresh ingredients are a given at any good restaurant these days. But there are degrees of freshness, and at the top is the Farm-to-Chef program, which is part of the state Department of Agriculture’s Connecticut Grown initiative.

Locally, Joel Thompson tills the soil at Cherry Grove Farm in Newtown, and the produce he grows on the land his family has worked since the Depression is a staple on the menu of Cafe Manolo in Westport.

“Not all chefs are willing to make that commitment,” says Thompson, who’s been gardening almost since he was old enough to walk. “It’s easier to buy produce from big suppliers who bring it on trucks from the warehouse. But for those who are, it’s a mutual arrangement — we’ll get them what they want, when they want it.” Cafe Manolo is the rare eatery that sticks with local produce year-round, knowing the quality and freshness are worth the small additional effort and cost.

That commitment to supply chefs with their preferred ingredients has led Thompson to broaden his garden far beyond the scope of any backyard or commercial plot, sowing and cultivating varieties of corn, tomatoes, carrots and the like that are seen only in seed catalogs and rarely tasted.

“I get seeds from all over the planet,” says Thompson. “People will bring them to me from Europe, Africa and Asia. I’ll give seed catalogs to the chefs, and they can choose what they want me to grow — in that sense, the farm belongs to them.”

Although spring and summer seems distant, Thompson is already busy amassing seeds for the 2011 crop. Many should be ready for planting in cold frames before the last snow of the winter has melted.

Within a few months, the spring rains and sun will bring them to life. Not long after that, they will head to the kitchens and tables of area restaurants like Cafe Manolo.

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