Photos by Elizabeth Cecil
In terms of keeping food local, it doesn't get much closer to home than chef Chris Fischer's Beetlebung Farm. Fischer spent much of his childhood at his grandfather's Martha's Vineyard farm and the shared meals there left a lasting impression on the highly regarded chef and author. Created in partnership with Panera, The Nourished Life explores the lives and work of those dedicated to healthy, sustainable eating to uncover new understandings of what "good food" really means.
It only takes a cursory glance at the culinary resumé of Martha's Vineyard-native Chris Fischer to generate respect. The chef and cookbook author has earned his stripes in some of the top restaurants in the world from New York to California with stints in Rome, London, and most recently Tokyo. However, it's at home where Fischer finds both fulfillment and success running the family farm on Martha's Vineyard.
Beetlebung Farm is a five-acre parcel of land in the southwest corner of the island where Fischer first felt a connection to food and learned the importance of sitting down to a communal meal. Fischer's grandfather bought it in the 1950s and has been in the family ever since.
"When I grew up, and during the summers, my whole family worked on the farm," Fischer said. At noon everyone would sit down and have lunch together. Family members that were working off the property would come, and soon friends followed suit; sometimes there would be 25, 30, 40 people around for lunch. "Sometimes there were four generations of my family sitting there having lunch."
"The value of a good meal is very important to me."
Fischer soaked in these daily gatherings with family, friends, and community members until they became an integral part of his life. Every night at 6:30 sharp the Fischers met for family dinner without fail. Not surprisingly, sharing meals became a major guiding principle in his philosophy around food. At some of the world's top restaurants, Fischer would bring this element of fellowship and the spirit togetherness to each new environment.
A few years ago Fischer came back to Martha's Vineyard to take over running the family farm and cook on the island. Things had changed a bit since he was a kid. He quickly noticed a disconnect between the farmers and their food — no one was gathering around the table after a day's work.
"We started having dinners in our greenhouse — I thought it was a way to better celebrate what the farmers were doing." These dinners grew over time to include an eclectic mix of guests alongside the farmers with everyone from university professors to actors in attendance.
"If you can bring together a dynamic group to the table it adds so much more to the meal than you would otherwise," Fischer explained. "I realize how important the food is and knowing where your food is coming from to a meal, but the conviviality that you create adds to it tenfold."
Fischer's grandfather ran Beetlebung Farm with a great reverence for nature. He might not have stamped his property as a biodynamic farm, but that's unintentionally how it was ran. Rabbits were brought in to do the weeding and grasses were mown down by hungry livestock. Today, Fischer runs the farm the way his grandfather would: with a deep spiritual bond with the land and respect for the food it provides.
"The intention that you put into something will result in even more positive results," Fischer said. After finding this to be the case in the fields, Fischer applies the same concept to cooking in his restaurant. "When the kitchen in a restaurant is a cohesive unit, and people are putting love into their food, you have it. I think it stems from a relationship with the food and I feel that that energy is passed on into the food and those intentions are passed on to the consumer."
Fischer's hands-on approach to cooking and producing food means every day brings a new adventure. While his restaurant days were more structure, now he's all over the place and wouldn't have it any other way.
Between working on The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook — just released this June — to making sure the farm is running in top shape, and scouring for the best ingredients (which can change daily with the weather), Fischer keeps busy, to say the least.
"I find myself delivering piglets one day and picking up goats in Vermont another and roasting a pig for my grandmother's birthday one night then driving to New York to deliver fish, or even getting out on the water myself and fishing," Fischer said of his so-called schedule.
"The nice thing about my days is, a lot of the time I have over-arching big tasks I need to do, but in the search for the perfect ingredients I certainly find myself picking milkweed in some random field or going to a 90-year-old farmer's house and digging potatoes. It's really wonderful," Fischer added. Rest assured, he always makes time for meal with the people around him.