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February 16th, 2012

by Total Food Service

Morten Sohlberg Q&A

Mr. Sohlberg is the Founder of Sessions.edu, Smörgås Chef Restaurant Group, and Blenheim Hill Farms. He has over 20 years of experience from various industries. Total Food had a chance to sit down and talk with him about his farm and restaurant business.

Where did the idea come from? 

The idea for the farm arose from the fact we were always conscious about sourcing our menu with purveyors who raised animals humanely, cultivated produce organically and in general were somewhat local. Over time, we unfortunately discovered these vendors either were mostly unregulated, fabricated their claims or just weren’t offering the highest quality goods. We always loved the Catskills and Hudson Valley and purchasing, building and getting the farm up to speed was an amazing adventure.

Is this a “movement” or a restaurant?

Both-Smorgas Chef has been at the forefront of the “New Nordic Cuisine” style of cooking (which emphasizes smoking, curing, pickling etc with the larger goal of returning balance to the earth itself) for over a decade. Adhering to this vision; we always tried to purchase locally, seasonally and organically. We have been fortunate enough to merge the two trends and basically create a popular menu which has enabled us to expand rapidly.

What’s the long term vision?

We are in the process of opening a 5th finer dining restaurant with a menu almost exclusively farm to fork with some fun twists. We will use our 160 acres of woodlands for the furniture. We will composte on site and perhaps grow herbs in the dining room. Future expansion will hopefully include the Hudson Valley and the outer boroughs.
We are actively exploring the potential of developing packaged products for retail outlets. The farm will expand exponentially to meet all these needs and we hope to be in the forefront of developing new technologies to enable the smaller farm to enter the local food chain.

How can the dining patron notice a difference from taste? 

Visually it is immediate. Egg yolks are more orange-fresher looking-richer tasting.  Our chickens are grass-fed; they just aren’t stuffed with soy and corn. The lettuce is much more vibrant than packaged fare. By utilizing hydroponics; we have shortened the growing cycle as well as eliminating pesticides and chemicals from the food chain. Herbs are replenished weekly. Our animals are processed and immediately brought down for introduction into the menu.

Does that customer even care how the food gets to the table?

We have seen 30% growth over the last year in a stagnant economy --we attribute this growth to the farm and the public’s growing awareness of the food chain, the environment and healthier eating styles. Fast Food Nation, Jamie Oliver’s crusade, the explosion of both cable cooking shows and the proliferation of local farmer’s markets offer further proof of consumer interest.

If they don’t why should they care how it gets to the table?

Ultimately a restaurant patron decides with his taste buds and wallet. We would argue our food tastes better because of our methods.

Is this an indictment of the food service distributor and vendor community?

That is a very interesting and somewhat loaded question! Your magazine represents many aspects of the food service industry. This is an important conversation-a wake up call as well as an opportunity for the whole packaged food/wholesale supply chain. If restaurants/diners start demanding more accountability; changes can be made. Local farmers will prosper, the environment will improve and global food needs can be met more easily.

What type of chef is looking for this type of opportunity?

We have been able to attract a much more dynamic talent pool because chefs get excited using cleaner, locally sourced products. We offer regular excursions to the farm for our employees and welcome input from all on menu changes.
How will seasonality impact the restaurant’s menus? Our greenhouse supplies 500 lbs. of produce weekly. This somewhat offsets these seasonal challenges-but if we can’t get the best product by whatever means-we just adjust our menu.

Crystal ball…what will this look like 5 years out?

The metaphorical seeds have already been planted in minds and gardens. School’s curriculum now include courses on nutrition, farming and environmental sciences. Urban farming will evolve from a bit of a novelty fad into a viable economic model to meet the community’s needs.
Local farmers can truly be integrated into the local food chain by fostering relationships with suppliers. Suppliers will be held accountable to different standards and will have to adapt to meet consumer demand.

 

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