By Growing Together Intern, Julia Bridgforth
Last week, the farmers of Growing Together gathered for their weekly winter training session. Although these sessions are usually filled with robust lessons about crop planning and best practices for marketing, this day was extra special.
Jessica Benefield, of the renowned restaurant Two Ten Jack, entered the classroom at Christ Lutheran Church off of Haywood Lane with a full smile and genuine excitement to meet the farmers that have grown so much for her restaurant over the years. Jessica is the chef and partner at three restaurants - Two Ten Jack (Nashville and Chattanooga locations), a Japanese-inspired neighborhood pub referred to as an izakaya, and the recently opened The Green Pheasant, which is a Japanese-inspired fine dining experience.
Jessica and her husband, Trey Burnett, were some of the first chefs to seek out and maintain a consistent relationship with the New American Farmers of Growing Together, supporting the farmers since they began selling to restaurants. Specifically seeking the farmers out for their unique and specialty crops, Jessica not only continues to purchase pounds and pounds of komatsuna, mustard greens, and shishito peppers throughout the season, but she’s also eager to try products she’s unfamiliar with like pumpkin shoots and hibiscus leaves - or whatever else the farmers are growing!
After a welcoming presentation which included adorning her with sindoor, a red powder on her forehead to celebrate her arrival, and a decorative shawl, the energy in the room was filled with gratitude and shared community marked by smiles, cheers and loud claps. Jessica took a seat in the circle and thanked the farmers of the program for their produce. “It is the highest quality food that I receive all year,” she said. She continued with a small speech explaining her background and reasoning for her close interaction with Growing Together.
“Sometimes, it is easy to get brought down by the work mentality of what I do as a chef, because it is hard work. But whenever we receive your vegetables, it excites the entire kitchen. Experimenting with the new and interesting ingredients that you all grow gives us so much life. And it is so important to us to know who we are buying the produce from. Our lives as chefs benefit every time we get food from you, and the culinary experience we are able to present improves.”
Two Ten Jack’s focus on the neighborhood is not just a catchy tagline. They partnered with local artists for their interior decorating and have a desire to be as involved in the neighborhood as possible, creating a welcoming space for food and community. The goal is to connect the rural Japanese culture of the 1800s to a modern Southern city. Having farmers that grow exotic crops such as thai basil, shishito peppers, komatsuna and a variety of mustard greens within the Two Ten Jack sphere has created the perfect partnership that benefits the farmers with a steady customer base, and helps the restaurant achieve its goal of supporting the community.
The farmers were extremely excited about Jessica coming to speak and were bursting with questions about which foods she prefers and swapping recipes for roselle leaves (also known as hibiscus leaves) and squash blossoms. Jessica is optimistic about furthering her partnership with Growing Together, and is especially interested in the intensely hot peppers that Chandra, a farmer from Bhutan, said he would grow specifically for her. Jessica requested, “the hotter the pepper, the better. I like to make people cry with our special hot sauce.” That is a challenge the farmers were eager to accept.
Direct relationships with chefs in Nashville are incredibly important to the success of the Growing Together farmers. These relationships help create a secure market by consistently purchasing farmers’ product, leaving them less reliant on weekly market sales which are constantly in flux. These relationships also create pathways for these farmers to grow their sales and share their produce with the larger Nashville community. And as Jessica explained, these relationships also improve the chef’s experience. Exciting ingredients and a true bond with the hands that cultivate the ingredients increase the enjoyment chefs feel in the kitchen, which Jessica believes presents itself with love in the dishes she creates to feed the people of Nashville.