Changes in the weather, a farm truck breaking down or a fisherman’s luck can all influence what makes it onto the plate at Standard Foods. The combination eatery/butcher- shop/market in the Mordecai neighborhood is farm-to-table in the literal sense—upward of 90 percent of its ingredients are locally sourced, some from the farm just outside the back door.
“We built this concept around wanting to source from 80 miles around Raleigh,” says owner and real estate developer John Holmes. “What (we’re) doing in the kitchen and the market tells the story of the farmer and gets people accustomed to understanding the true seasonality of what we’re doing, and that the ways they choose to source and shop and eat really can have a positive effect.”
Head chef Eric Montagne, 28, sits with chef de cuisine Will Cisa each morning to create that evening’s menu, conjuring dishes from the meats and produce available from local growers. Dirty rice with shrimp, scallops, clams and Andouille sausage; sweet potato soup with local peanuts; coq au vin with Carolina gold rice; mushroom bread pudding. And Persian-spiced goat with farro and brussels sprouts have recently starred alongside menu regulars like Cedar Island oysters, whole fried fish and spoonbread made with locally-milled cornmeal and served with hot honey and cheddar cheese from a nearby dairy.
“There’s a lot of problem solving,” says Montagne, former executive chef at Vivian Howard-owned Boiler Room Oyster Bar in Kinston. “The way we communicate with our farmers isn’t like, ‘I need a hundred pounds of carrots.’ It’s ‘What do you have?’ If it’s five pounds of six different things, I’ll take all of them…We’re extremely lucky to be able to take a lot of things that people wouldn’t normally be able to get rid of and things that farmers are growing that are completely experimental.”
Relying on local growers for seasonal meat and produce is a challenge, but one Montagne and the rest of the Standard Foods staff embrace. For example, a farmer recently came with a surplus of early spring dandelion greens. With a little kitchen magic, Montagne transformed the bitter weeds into a savory side dish. And this winter, their poultry supplier stopped producing chicken for the season so he added rabbit and guinea hen to the menu instead.
For inspiration, Montagne flips through dozens of cookbooks he keeps in the restaurant kitchen and at home. Once his culinary experiments are perfected, he tests them out on kitchen staff, front-of-house managers and finally, the whole staff. He believes that involving everyone in creating and critiquing the menu gives them a sense of ownership and engagement.
“It’s a lot of experimentation—what works, what doesn’t, how can we elevate the flavor without over-manipulating the product,” he says. “You just have to be open and not see it as restraint; creativity lives within boundaries. The people who are raising and catching these things for us…it’s our job to responsibly showcase what they’re doing.”
New general manager Max Trujillo, formerly of Midtown Grille, agrees: “The restaurant, the butcher and grocery, the bar program and the farm outside all believe in the same vibe, and that is working together, promoting North Carolina products, being sustainable, creating minimal amounts of waste,” he says. “Walk through our farm, look to see what we’re doing, and you really can understand the whole concept of food as a whole from beginning to end.”
The farm is steps from the back door, beyond an outdoor oven constructed from salvaged bricks. Long rows of low plants grow where a house once stood, from nondescript herbs Montagne identifies as thyme, chervil, chickweed and henbit to lettuces, Pacific flowering broccoli and berries. A bay tree slowly grows in a corner of the plot, a lemon tree puts down roots, and a wall of apple trees is in the works.
Holmes wanted Standard Foods, located on east Franklin Street downtown, to reflect the neighborhood markets where he lived in New York and Aix en Provence, France. The restaurant’s adjacent market sells local and regional gourmet foods, fresh produce and specialties like house-made ice cream. Butcher Jeremy Hardcastle cuts ethical meats, makes in-house sausage, and advises customers how best to prepare the cut of meat they’ve purchased.
“In the neighborhood, we were missing the butcher, the grocer, the fishmonger,” says Holmes. “We [wanted to] maintain the ethos of those places, where it’s highly specialized and the people who are doing it are artisans, and you know that what you’re buying here has been vetted. If you care about sourcing and where your food comes from, that’s what we’re trying to deliver.”