The Farmer, the Chef, & the Stalker: A Love Story
I remember the exchange like it was yesterday. Ali asked our waiter, “It says the tomatoes on the menu are local, can you tell me where they’re from?” It was April on Cape Cod, so no doubt this tomato question gave her that warm “locked and loaded” feeling. Local? Tomatoes? April? The waiter didn’t know it, but the red dot laser sight was lined up directly between his eyes. Now, rather than do what I would have in his position—run off to get my order pad, then shimmy out the bathroom window and head for the car, the waiter stood strong and answered confidently, “We get them from Farmer Dan.”
Farmer Dan? Now I was intrigued. “Where is Farmer Dan’s farm?” I queried. “Um…I think it’s in, um…you know, I’m not sure.” He was asked to check with the chef. When he returned, we were told the chef was off that evening. The waiter, who was either caught fibbing, or perhaps realized he was simply passing along a falsehood, stood withered in defeat, so we gave him a free pass, and dropped the subject (besides, why risk beads of waiter sweat dripping into our lobster bisque?). The moment passed and we had a lovely dinner, sans April New England tomatoes.
Earlier this year at a different establishment, when ordering the chef’s special “Herb Crusted Local Haddock”, the question arose if sage was included as one of the unnamed herbs. The question was asked directly to the chef, who we assumed created the “chef’s special”. She headed toward the kitchen to check the ingredients—which should have given us the sense to get up and cut our losses—but we were tucked in and comfortable sipping our wine. When she returned, her answer to our question was “No sage.” (As I write this I am astonished; not only did we stay for dinner, one of us actually went ahead and ordered the dish!) When the fish arrived it was loaded with…wait for it…sage. The conclusion we came up with as we picked around our deceit-tainted dishes, was that the fish was not just a frozen product, but it had arrived off the truck already herbed. If there’s another explanation, I’d like to hear it.
This isn’t something that happens just on Cape Cod. It happens all over the world, and as you read this, you’re probably being reminded of your own similar experiences. As words like “local”, “organic” and “farm fresh” rise in popularity, one might assume that the misuse of such popular terms rises with the tide, and although I have come to peace with pulling the wool over my own eyes—like hiding the car keys from myself or finding a restaurant receipt from a place I don’t remember ever being in—when others pull the wool over my eyes, well, I take issue with that.
This is why I spent a couple of hours with Cynthia Cole, owner of Wanna Bee Farm. Cynthia is an acquaintance, albeit someone I don’t know very well, but a person whose path I cross often—usually at the Barnstable Village Market where she drops off her herbs, mixed greens, Swiss chard, kale, or whatever flowers happen to be in bloom that week for a table centerpiece.
Before donning her dirt-caked farm boots, Cynthia was the Executive Director of the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District (known as the Hyannis BID) for nine years. She fell into that position after becoming the coordinator for the committee to create the Hyannis BID, which was a natural transition after being the person who established a BID for the city of Taunton.
Now, understand that to be a person who either establishes a Business Improvement District, or one who runs one, you have to dance to a “Must Love Main Streets” rhythm. Managing and marketing a Main Street district, while making sure it is current, relevant, as prim and proper as a prom date and as buffed up as the chrome on a ‘57 Chevy, is not for the faint of heart—and that’s on top of making sure every member business gets its due and working tirelessly as a liaison between the private sector and the town. But those days are far behind her.
Cynthia, now in her fortieth year on Cape Cod, decided to turn from her passion for Main Street, USA, toward her second passion: the farm. On paper, she is a female version of Green Acres’ Oliver Wendell Douglas: a corporate-brained, small-business-loving fighter who now spends all her time chasing chickens in overalls (she’s in overalls, not the chickens). Cynthia splits her time between her half-acre home/Wanna Bee Farm, which is tucked away at the end of a quiet dead-end street in Barnstable Village, and her “office”, the 12,000-square foot Wanna Bee Farm at the Long Pasture Nature Center just down the road. But in all the time I’ve known Cynthia I never knew the name of her farm. I had only heard of it once, while having lunch at Pain D’Avignon Café-Boulangerie, when a waitress told me the local eggs being served at brunch were from Wanna Bee Farm on Cape Cod.
“Where is that?” I asked. The waitress told me that she had no idea, but seemed to think it was close by. She then started to name other ingredients on the menu that also came from the farm—the parsley, sage, chives, mint, cilantro, the afternoon’s cauliflower, and even the mint marigold that garnished my plate, all hailed from Wanna Bee Farm. Eyeballing the menu I turned suspicious as the waitress started talking about other seasonal items brought in from Wanna Bee, and how I should “come back for Cynthia’s beets and awesome Adelaides sometime.” Funny, I thought, all this produce from one little farm, and no mention of Wanna Bee Farm on the menu? Something struck me as odd.
The following day, as luck would have it, I found Cynthia arranging a display of delphinium at the Barnstable Market. When I questioned the farm name, she explained that the term “wannabe” popped into her head as she hoped it would become a real farm some day, and she a real farmer. “Can I see your farm?” I asked. She shot me a look as if I had asked her to zip up the back of my gorilla suit. “You want to see my farm? Why?” I told her that I just wanted to. I didn’t go into detail, but I felt a need to actually see a place that people tell me my food is from. It might be a refreshing in lieu of the fictional “Farmer Dan” moments that echoed so loudly with me. She said I could stop by the next morning.
“How many chickens do you have?” I asked, having expected to see three or four. The answer was over 70. They were big, beautiful and boisterous, and the way Cynthia was feeding them—having a little conversation with them and pointing out their various attributes, which one was a food hog, which one was the wisenheimer, and which one I couldn’t photograph because “she’s got no ass”—I got the feeling these egg layers were also her beloved pets.
Cynthia’s husband of 20 years, Isaac Rosen, is Cynthia’s biggest cheerleader, and can often be seen getting dirty right beside her during one of his days off from teaching eighth grade English in New Bedford.
“When I left the BID, I starting consulting and I was farming a bit on the side, but Isaac knew that my heart wasn’t in my career anymore, and although the financial strains can make life tough, he supported my decision to try to make this thing happen. I’m still trying to make it happen, but I couldn’t do it without Isaac.” I finally had to ask. “So besides the Barnstable Market, whom do you sell to?” Her answer was Pain D’Avignon. “I grow almost exclusively for Matthew Tropeano—you know Matt, right?” (I didn’t).
“As long as what I’m bringing in looks great, Matt puts it on his menu. Broccoli rabe, cukes, radishes, lemon balm, Zaatar marjoram, what are those things…uh…oh yeah, Tongue of Fire beans. He wants his menu to be as local as possible, so he takes it all!”
Cynthia’s relationship started with Pain D’Avignon during her days on Main Street, when she used to stop by the tiny bakeshop for a loaf of bread at their first location, down by the giant beech tree. She became friends with owners Vojin Vujosevic and Toma Stamenkovic, and all have remained mutual supporters to this day.
“They opened their doors to me when I started selling eggs about four years ago, and they’ve been great to me ever since. Matt has a huge appreciation for what Cape growers are doing, but it’s Vojin and Toma that support his cause and give Matt the budget to buy so much stuff. Many restaurant owners might not be that forward thinking.”
I had to ask. “Being that Matt is putting so much local product on his menu, why doesn’t the menu say so? Why doesn’t he mention your farm on any of his menus?” Cynthia didn’t know, nor did she seem to care. I had the feeling that putting her name, or her farm’s name out there…well, looking at yourself as a “wannabe” leaves you feeling undeserving of the spotlight. As long as her crops grew—and grew for someone who appreciated them—Cynthia was all set.
“OK, I’m running late. I have to rinse these herbs, drop them off with Matt, and pick up Samuel (her third and youngest child) from his game.” I was getting the boot, but it was getting to be about lunchtime, so I decided that perhaps Pain D’Avignon might be a good place for lunch.
“What are you doing here?” Cynthia screeched. My Nikon camera was clicking away. “STOP taking my picture! You’re embarrassing me!!!” she yelled across the parking lot, contorting her body and using a red basket to block her even redder face (and without a care that she had become the entertainment for the diners on the outdoor patio—enter Cynthia Cole, stage right).
I had arrived a few minutes beforehand and had a chance to Google Matthew Tropeano in the parking lot and read that he grew up in the business, starting as busboy in his cousin’s restaurant. He eventually rose up to become the executive chef at Manhattan’s famous La Grenouille for eight years, receiving a three-star rating from The New York Times, and most recently as executive chef at La Silhouette in Hell’s Kitchen. It occurred to me that this relationship between a farm girl who still feels like a “wannabe” and this award-winning, farm-loving chef was the kind of symbiotic love story that needed to be told.
With more contorting, basket-wielding (missed me by inches) and a couple mild, red-faced obscenities, Cynthia reluctantly agreed to let me snap a few pictures, and follow her into Pain D’Avignon’s kitchen to meet Matt. “So-and-so, this is Tom…oh! And Tom, say hi to so-and-so!” I can’t remember the names, partially because the kitchen staff were working and walking by me so quickly, but more so because I was astonished by Cynthia’s transformation. A minute ago she was the awkward, insecure “wannabe”, but entering the kitchen she became the belle of the ball. Showing off a mustard green here, and cilantro there, joking with the sous chef, the dishwasher—rearranging her section of the walk-in refrigerator, rotating the stock and carefully picking an out-of-place leaf off of something, Cynthia was definitely in her element.
“Matt! I want you to meet Tom.” I shook hands with the Chef and we talked food and menus for a while. Finally I had to ask. “I found it hard to believe that you were featuring so much local product on your menu. If you are, why not boast about it? Put more farm names on there? I see a couple names, but it’s pretty understated on your menus, considering how much you’re buying.”
His answer was as honest as it was simple. “If I say the basil if from Wanna Bee Farm, and Cynthia doesn’t have enough basil on a particular week, I don’t want to deceive my guests. I also grow my own produce at Meetinghouse Farm in West Barnstable, and of course I buy from other local farms. There’s a statement on the menu that reads: ‘We are committed to sourcing our ingredients in partnership with local growers and food artisans. Ask your server for a current list.’ Here’s this week’s list,” says Matt as he pulls a white sheet of paper off the bulletin board. “The menu might not change every day, but this list is always in flux, and if the question is asked ‘Where is it from?’ I expect the servers to know.” This guy was the real deal, and I got my answer.
Getting ready to head out, I told Matt how much I appreciated everything he was doing on his menu, and for locals like Cynthia. “It’s not all local,” Matt pointed out. “I just got some fresh fish flown in from Hawaii. I’ll support anyone who’s as passionate about what they do as I am about what I do.” Certainly that philosophy made sense as to why Cynthia Cole was standing in the kitchen of Pain D’Avignon. Now it seems the only thing Cynthia has left to do is come up with a more appropriate name for her farm.