US | Taking a Seat at the Table

Donald Hines of Hines Family Farm

A new farm-to-table program from Sodexo Live! Is bringing local, Southern food grown by historically underrepresented growers and creators into the spotlight.

During the lockdown phase of the pandemic last year, Sodexo Live! Executive Chef Phil Evans of the Raleigh Convention Centre had too much time on his hands—events were cancelled, and he was left alone in the kitchen with his thoughts, for the most part.

Events of 2020 weighed heavy on his mind, especially Black Lives Matter. Pairing that with his already constant train of thought to ‘do more farm-to-table’.

Executive Chef Phil Evans

“We were always just so busy [before the pandemic], but in 2020, we had a lot of time on our hands. I was here by myself and decided to take a further look into farm-to-table.”

The result was the development of a whole new menu for the Raleigh Convention Centre called A Seat at the Table: Southern Cuisine Featuring North Carolina’s Women and BIPOC Farmers and Food Producers.

Soon the chef started taking road trips to BIPOC- and women-owned farms in the state of North Carolina, from urban farm patches in Raleigh to sprawling generations-old family farms down winding roads.

“I drove all around and went to farms and talked about life and products and building relationships,” Evans said. He embraced the philosophy: “I learn from everyone every day.”

FBI Agent-Turned Farmer

In 2019, Donald Hines was travelling down a new path in life, going from an FBI agent to a farmer. Hines Family Farm is a place his generation and the one before them had grown away from.

“It’s been our family land for generations,” Hines said.

“My great-granddad died many years ago, and in his passing, we did not divide up the land. Over the years, almost everyone in the family went out into the world and went on with their careers, but everyone came together at tobacco season. We shared the harvest, and we shared the work on the farm. I was drawn back to my family and to the farming culture and that sustainability. It’s what I wanted to do when I retired.”

Soon, he was researching many different crops to plant, and started with 400 peach trees—which seems like a lot!

“I don’t dream small. I’m a big dreamer.”

The Future is Female

Tami Purdue held her own for years in a traditionally male-dominated workplace: a law firm.

Tami Purdue, Sweet Peas Urban Garden

“I was working 60 to 70 hours a week, and I wanted to move on.”

Of course, she still works that much, the difference is, she loves every minute.

Purdue now oversees Sweet Peas Urban Garden, a 1.5-acre plot near N.C. State in Raleigh. After seeing urban farm guru and author of The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities Will Allen speak, she knew urban farming was her path.

Sweet Peas was Evans’ first visit. From a chef’s perspective, he found the site to be alive with culinary inspiration: Edible flowers, Sungold tomatoes, passion fruit, microgreens, and arugula (rocket) in all its spiky, peppery glory.

To the Table

Evans’ part in this journey is to put it all together on a plate—using produce from these farms for the needs of the convention centre. That arugula from Sweet Peas Urban Garden was a total salad standout at an event for Wake County officials.

Incorporating produce from small urban gardens to larger farms takes some finessing and planning for the unexpected, especially for a convention centre that serves guests in the thousands.

“We want to highlight all these items, but it’s not easy to do this, because you never know what’s coming off the farm,” Evans said.

Still, he’s finding new ways to make it work, day by day. The resulting menu is a true reflection of local Southern producers, many of whom have had to work hard for their seats at the table.