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Chef Lauren Teague: going whole hog in support of local farms

Chef Lauren Teague: going whole hog in support of local farms

By LeeAnna Tatum

From ballet slippers to butcher knives, Chef LaurenTeague traded her dancing aspirations in for aculinary career after one life-changing class at theCulinary Institute of America.

Originally from New Jersey, Teague moved toNew York in pursuit of a dancing career only tofind herself working as a waitress along withall the other ballerina-hopefuls. The low-payingjob was not really to her liking so she took theadvice of some of her friends and signed up for anewly implemented Bachelor’s program for foodand beverage directors at the CIA (as in CulinaryInstitute of America, not that other CIA).

The program required the full culinary experience,but Teague didn’t let the fact that she was inept inthe kitchen keep her from enrolling.

“I will tell you that back then,” Teague confided, “Icouldn’t even boil water! It was the biggest joke thatI was going to go (to culinary school).”

“I went to this class and they put a thing thatalmost looked like a chain link fence around you,so you wouldn’t cut your thigh or something,” sherecalled with a laugh. “The first instructor was an exbaseball umpire. He was just the craziest guy I evermet … and we butchered a pig the first week I wasthere. And it was the best thing I’d ever done in mylife and I didn’t want to do anything else!”

Teague admits that even after completing her culinary degree she still couldn’t really cook. But through hard work, a willingness to learn and patient chefs who were willing to teach her, she developed her skills on the job.

Teague has been cultivating a name for herself in Savannah’s food scene, all while bringing attention to the local food movement and sourcing ingredients from local farms for her restaurants whenever possible.

She is currently the Executive Chef of Pacci Italian Kitchen located in the Brice Hotel downtown Savannah. In each of the kitchens she has managed since coming to Savannah approximately eight years ago, she has made a point of sourcing locally and creating a menu that reflects the produce that is seasonally available.

She started this tradition on a bit of a whim when she first came to Savannah as head chef for the restaurant at the Andaz.

“When I first got here. I worked at a hotel called the Andaz ... the whole idea and concept of this hotel is that you can’t be like anybody else. Every Andaz around the world has its own theme. And they came to me and said, what do you want your thing to be? And I was stumped because I’d never had anyone ask me that before. Usually you go somewhere and they say here’s the concept, we want you to make this, this and that,” Teague explained.

“I struggled for a couple of days and then I was like, we should eat local! At first, I thought I’d only cook food that I could get within 50 miles,” she paused for a beat, “that lasted about 10 days. Then we just expanded it a little bit and went more regional.”

With the help of her parents, Teague hit the road and started visiting local farms and farmers markets looking for the local products she needed for her kitchen. One of the first farms she visited, which marked the beginning of a longstanding relationship between chef and farmer was Relinda Walker’s farm, Walker Organic Farms.

“The first time I took my staff on a tour of their farm and we talked about bee boxes and cover crops - things chefs never know about … When you have somebody tell you how it’s grown and why, you find that you take more care of what you’re touching.”

A bounty of local ingredients
photo provided by Chef Teague

Teague continues to value her relationships with local farmers and is always on the lookout for new sources of local ingredients. Her goal is to help keep farmers on their farms farming and out of her kitchen (but in a nice way!).

“I have met more people who are farmers working in restaurants, because no one can afford to be a farmer anymore - you’ve got to have a second job. So, our thing is that if my $250 a week can keep you out of a restaurant and keep you on your three acre farm, I’m willing to buy whatever it is you have,” Teague explained.

As the Chef for not only a restaurant, but the hotel staff as well, Teague has some purchasing flexibility that enables her to buy ingredients that might not otherwise make it in a restaurant kitchen.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is let people know if you come to the farmers market (as a vendor) and you have a lot left over, you could bring it to me and I’d buy it. I’m really lucky now to have a hotel where I have to feed all the employees. So, if I can’t sell it in the restaurant, I can cook it for family meals. Everything gets used,” Teague said.

“I have to say, in the summer, we eat a lot of radishes!”, Teague said with a laugh. “I hate to say, ‘no’.”

Teague has recently started purchasing whole hogs as well, challenging her staff to make use of the entire animal.

“I have these greatsous-chefs, they break the whole thing down themselves. They make head cheese, sausage, they’re grinding pork for meatballs. Now they’re excited because they don’t have to do the same thing every day.”

Pork loins marinating
photo provided by Chef Teague

Teague recently created a new position on her staff to oversee farm relations and to go to the farms to harvest and collect the food. He delivers the food back to the restaurant and helps to prep it.

“Unless they’re coming to the farmers market, the farms aren’t right here,” Teague explained, “so you need someone to go get it. So, he’s sort of like my farmer in charge. He can go there and we can have a relationship with the farmer.”

Teague’s farm-to-table style of cooking may have started out as a bit of a lark as she searched for a theme on which to base her restaurant. But as she has developed relationships with farmers over the years, she has come to realize how impactful that choice to source locally truly is. Her dedication to local and seasonal ingredients is a boon to the local food system.

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