CHATHAM — One iconic feature of the Chatham Bars Inn, Cape Cod’s most famous luxury resort, is the breezy blue, gray, beige, and white color scheme that contributes to the property’s seaside symbiosis. It is one of the archetypal examples of elegant coastal design, which is why it was so striking to see red and yellow anomalies creep into the palette this year.
The new hues were the net effect of six tons of brilliant red and yellow tomatoes that rolled across the property this year. They, and other notably pristine vegetables, have been everywhere on the menus at the inn’s four restaurants and in the spaces in between. In addition to exciting long-time guests, they have helped attract big name chefs for collaboration dinners at a frequency never before seen. It has all been made possible by the now fully functioning Chatham Bars Inn Farm up the road in Brewster.
“Those vegetables rival anything I can get in Boston,’’ says Bar Mezzana’s Colin Lynch, who cooked a family-style Italian guest chef dinner in August at the inn. “I was blown away by their sweet peppers, which we roasted peperonata-style with golden raisins, sherry vinegar, and burrata. Produce that good lets you relax, which is kind of the point out there.’’
Preparing the ground
A former garden center and small berry grower on eight uneven acres in Brewster, CBI Farm was purchased in 2012. The impetus was to help accelerate the inn’s culinary transformation, a pillar of the more than $100 million modernization effort that began when Richard Cohen’s Capital Properties bought the resort in 2006.
“It was a huge deal, because we had struggled to get really good produce at scale out here,’’ says Anthony Cole, the inn’s longtime executive chef. “It helped us hit our stride and it means a lot to have a farmer who knows how to work with chefs and just constantly looks ahead for new ideas and products.’’
Cole is referring to Josh Schiff, the manager of CBI Farm, who has a story you don’t often hear on the Cape.
Trained in marketing, Schiff’s farming career started after he was laid off from a job and took over a few garden plots in suburban Chicago on a whim. He promptly fell in love with heirloom tomatoes. The bug was strong enough that he left the Midwest to apprentice at Love Apple Farms, the organic grower made famous by its one-time exclusive relationship with Manresa, one of only 14 restaurants in America with three Michelin stars.
“I learned a lot about varietals and the demands of working with high-end restaurants, but I was cocky and wanted to do something bigger,’’ says Schiff.
He ended up scraping together $15,000 to buy a small piece of land south of Chicago in Pembroke, a historic African-American farming enclave situated near a terminal on the Underground Railroad. Living in a complex for pork processing plant workers, Schiff wrestled with the land mainly on his own, managing over three seasons to grow a CSA program serving 85 customers in Chicago. It wasn’t enough of a living, so he sold the farm and leased a new track in Wisconsin, where he built a bigger CSA program and made a bare profit. But vicious mosquitoes made the experience almost unbearable. One day, Schiff was surfing job boards and he came across the CBI Farm posting.
Reaping the bounty
When Schiff arrived on Cape Cod in January 2014, the farming opportunities and challenges were clear. His operation was owned by his biggest customer, which meant he had some structure and stability. It was set up as an independent business, so Schiff could seek out other long-term sources of revenue. Major infrastructure updates had been made, including greenhouse remodeling and soil rehabilitation, giving him a valuable leg up in pursuing economic and environmental viability.
But pests were a problem and the soil was so sandy that nutrients ran right through it. At the inn, a high-volume hospitality mentality that prized cost minimization over anything else led his new colleagues to scoff at his high-end prices and, in some cases, ignore him.
“We were looked at as disrupting the well-oiled machine at first,’’ says Schiff. “But working closely with Chef Cole and his team has helped us break through and be seen as an asset.’’
Schiff has broken through on the land, too, with a meticulous focus on soil health (no synthetic fertilizers here) and tens of thousands of pounds of composted chicken manure from an organic egg-producing operation, among other things. Schiff has slowly built up the stable organic matter in the soil that plants need to flourish, and the effects have been dramatic.
Transforming the landscape
Walk onto the farm today and both its beauty and its CBI-ness will stun you. Everything looks flawless and clean and comfortable in its surroundings. The greenhouses at the front of the property are still heavy with ripe tomatoes, while rows of microgreens, edible flowers, carrots, lettuce, beets, cucumbers, sweet peppers, eggplant, onions, and other products radiate in neat lines out through the property. Working closely with Cole, Schiff has created a productive program for the 3.8 acres currently under cultivation, which is about the maximum the space will abide.
The inn has purchased more than 31,000 pounds of produce, worth upward of $118,000, from CBI Farm this year, and Cole has achieved something unexpected with the bounty: He has made the inn a place where vegetables may be the star culinary attraction.
The best thing on the in-room breakfast menu is the farm vegetable frittata. At the casual Beach House, a simple crudité appetizer of raw farm carrots, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, and tomatoes served with white bean and piquillo pepper hummus is bursting with texture and flavor. At Stars, the inn’s fine dining restaurant, Cole collaborated with revered Boston chef Jody Adams to create a new, Mediterranean-accented menu that features farm vegetables in virtually every dish. In August, the inn hosted a high-profile dinner with Outstanding in the Field, the high-end traveling culinary circus, at which Cole’s platter of grilled farm vegetables and fresh tomatoes over babaganoush outshined the wood-grilled lobsters and porchetta that followed on the menu.
“The farm has helped visibly elevate the overall experience here,’’ said John Speers, the inn’s general manager since 2014, who brought deep experience managing five-star properties and a strong culinary background. “We look at culinary pilgrimage sites like Blackberry Farm [the Tennessee luxury retreat] that are busy year-round as a model.’’
Branching out, but not too far
CBI Farm is having an impact that goes well beyond the inn. Schiff employs 11 people during peak season and he’s projecting $250,000 in revenue for 2017, which represents significant progress toward profitability. He has 87 CSA customers who pay between $400 and $675 for 20 weeks of peak season produce, and a farmstand to sell directly to other consumers. Equally as importantly, Schiff has contributed to the culinary boomlet that is happening on Cape Cod, selling vegetables to wholesalers and restaurants that have changed the shape of the area’s dining landscape, including Vers, SUNBiRD, and Clean Slate Eatery. Chefs and staff from these restaurants are at the farm on a near daily basis.
The momentum is invigorating to the whole CBI team and the community. The public can now visit any of the inn’s restaurants and, according to Speers, revenue growth in recent years has been significant. But what matters most is the response of the inn’s coveted population of repeat visitors, including families who have been coming here for generations.
“CBI was a place I never took seriously as a dining option,’’ says Stephen Daniel, a visitor since 1963 who also has restaurant investment experience, having partnered with super chef Wylie Dufresne to open Manhattan’s short-lived, but critically acclaimed Alder. “But the food is starting to surpass expectations, and I think it has a lot to do with this new point of view about nurturing and being nurtured by the farm.’’