Farm to Fork

The phrases “Farm to Fork” and “Farm to Table” get thrown around a lot, but what does that really mean? On my latest Western NC Farm Tour sponsored by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, we were able to follow several ingredients grown on farms and transformed into products sold at the local grocery store.

Gardens ≠ Farms

Let’s be real. I do not have a green thumb. I was gifted a “low maintenance” plant once as a housewarming present and it was dead within a week. I admire those who are able to have a garden to grow odds and ends of herbs, vegetables and fruit. However, I deeply revere the farmers who plant, nurture and harvest our food on a daily basis. They provide food and sustenance for the billions of people across the world. Just think about that. That is a lot of people! Farming is by no means an easy job, no matter how romantic it may sound. These men and women often work 12+ long hours consisting of strenuous labor under the scorching sun. Which leads into my next point.

Planting Cabbage.jpg

Transplanting cabbage

Farming isn’t glamorous

H-2A is a U.S. program that allows employers within agricultural industries to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary/seasonal jobs. This means they’ve already hired any and all U.S. workers who have applied. On the tour, we were fortunate to shadow 5th generation farmer, Cassandra Benfield Bare, on her farm, Harvest Farm. Our group spent only a couple hours “working” by picking tomatoes and transplanting cabbage in between taking copious amounts of photos. Despite it only being 9am, the 90 degree heat and high humidity had us drenched in sweat and covered in soil. Now imagine doing this for at least 10 more hours or until all the crops were harvested for the day and work was done in preparation for the next day. This didn’t sound very appealing to most of us, even for the short time we were out there. Do you know many of your friends who would voluntarily want to work in these conditions?

Picking Tomatoes

Picking cherry tomatoes

Taste of Local

After the hot sun had the best of us, we made a beeline for air conditioning and to check out Taste of Local, put on by Ingles Markets and their awesome dietitian, Leah McGrath! We were able to replenish our energy in the form of delicious bites crafted by regional Western North Carolina companies. A few of my personal favorites included the Sriracha Spice pretzels from Asheville Pretzel Company, Woogie’s Beer Mustard & Dippin’ Sauce, Salted Caramel Peach Spread from Unicoi Preserves and finally, tomatoes and sweet potatoes from New Sprout Organic Farms.

Final Thoughts

With each gained connection with a farmer and participating in these farm tours, the phrase “Farm to Fork” seems rather redundant to me. Whether you’re dining in a restaurant or at your home, the food has made it to your fork. Your food was grown by a farmer, whether they live down the street or miles away. Someone has spent numerous hours laboring so that this plate of nourishment can make it into the bellies of you, your family and friends. To discredit this would be a huge disservice for these people who provide food to billions around the world.

Last, but not least, no trip with Tabletop Media Group is complete without a hopstache courtesy of Pisgah Brewing Company.



In the WYO West

Fresh off the tails of a rejuvenating jaunt including deep breaths of crisp, mountain air and celebrating my dear friend’s nuptials, it’s been hard adjusting back to the everyday routine. Instead of pining for the comfort of a blissful week, I’m sharing a few of the moments that made me fall in love with our 44th state all over again.

Drop down and get your elk on

Forget the lions, tigers and bears (OK – maybe not the bears, there are plenty of bears in Wyoming). Wyoming is full of ranches offering top quality cattle, but many friends and family members hunt to provide for their loved ones in the form of elk, bison and deer, depending on the season. On our first visit in 2014, we were treated to elk and bison. Three years later, my mouth was still watering with nostalgia in hopes of recreating this food memory. I was on cloud nine when the Steinhorst family spoiled us with the riches of the past hunting season in the form of a backyard cookout featuring elk burgers. Lean, flavorful and fresh – the last bite was bittersweet, but will keep my taste buds going until the next time.


Elk burger with red cabbage slaw, BBQ beans and spiced sweet potato mash

Down on the farm

I imagined farm land would be rather easy to come by, as the drive from place to place is rather long with rolling fields and countryside on both sides of the road. However, Theresa from Shiloh Valley Family Farms let us know arable land is rather expensive and exclusive in Wyoming. Theresa grew up in a family of farmers, so she’s well versed in the laborious lifestyle. She’s continuing on the tradition with her husband and children on their farm in Sheridan. More than 1500 miles from my home, Theresa is receiving the same consumer feedback and questions our clients have in the Triangle area. The hot topics of pasture raised meat, grain vs. grass fed, organic vs. conventional and, not to be forgotten, GMO vs. non GMO grain. The world got a little smaller when we were able to relate over the desire of the market for certain products, but realizing there is a cost that comes with the demand, whether it be economic, environmental, or both.

Shiloh Valley

Piglet from Shiloh Valley Family Farm

Midwestern charm

This is the most underrated characteristic of everyone I ran into, regardless of if they were friends, friends of friends or a complete stranger. Despite having only visited once before, I felt at ease walking downtown with all the smiles, tips of cowboy hats and friendly hello’s. There’s something to be said for the simplicity of the great outdoors and humble small town vibe. The pace of life is a bit slower so as to be intentional and savor each moment. Work is important, but equally so are the interactions and relationships you have with family and friends. If you haven’t had a chance to make it out west to see what Midwestern charm is all about, you’re missing out. Special thanks to the Kirven family for sharing their slice of heaven with this East Coast girl.


Three friends turned RDs


Farmed Fish Fables

Last month I was lucky to tag along on the North Carolina Department of Agriculture‘s sponsored Eastern NC Seafood Farm Tour. If you follow my social media feeds, it’s clear I have a soft spot for all things seafood. Oysters, grouper, shrimp – I don’t discriminate.

Living in a coastal state, there is an abundance of regionally available seafood choices native to North Carolina. There were countless highlights of this tour, including the ever present delectable samples of fresh seafaring goodies. However, I’m most excited to bring to light a few of the fables commonly surrounding the topic of aquaculture.

Farm raised fish isn’t as “clean” as wild caught fish.

We can google everything now and find the worst case scenario emblazoned on the first page of results. This doesn’t seclude aquaculture. Within the food and nutrition field, I regularly hear how “dirty” farmed fish is and how it should be avoided. However, every aquaculture stop we visited was as clean as a farm should be expected to be and tanks were by no means crowded. When it comes down to it, fish are animals and that means they have inputs and outputs just like humans. Circle G Farm, Mill Point Aquaculture, Mr. Big Seafood and Marshallberg Farms have filtration systems set up within their tanks to produce fish and shellfish that more than surpass the food safety and sanitation regulations.

Oysters are only in season during “R” months.

I’ve always been taught this, whether it was from a past chef or an old wive’s tale. However, this ideology was quickly put to rest by Jimmy Morris from Mill Point Aquaculture in Sea Level. The reality is oysters are commonly consumed raw, which means strict temperature regulations are enforced upon hatcheries, such as Mill Point, to make sure they are safe for public consumption. When water levels fluctuate more than 2 inches, natural bacteria and pollutants in the water disturb the oyster’s normal environment, so there is a moratorium put on consuming said oysters for 48 hours. This means oysters are “in season” year round, especially as we have access to the beauties grown down on the NC coast.


Fully grown oyster

Frozen seafood isn’t as good as fresh seafood.

Our stop at Mr. Big Seafood on Harkers Island squashed this myth before our tour of the facilities even started. Mr. Big, along with a majority of the other farms we visited, processes and freezes a large portion of their product within mere hours of harvesting. The frozen vs. fresh debate is common when looking at vegetable options, too. Seafood is in the same boat as vegetables in that they are harvested, processed quickly and frozen to maintain their freshness to be shipped to customers near and far. Mr. Big Seafood also sells a fair amount of their coastal treasures in their quaint storefront.

Soft Shell Crab

Freshly molted soft shell crab

Aquaculture farmers are just in it for the money.

The bottom line is the places we visited are all operating businesses. However, that means producing and harvesting quality product that will actually sell on the market. Many of the producers we met on the tour are second and third generation farmers, fishermen and fisherwomen. The family tradition beams not only from the talent and skill they’ve acquired over the years, but in the stories they’re able to share of Eastern North Carolina coastal culture through something as simple as their daily catch. Spending just a few days with them it’s easy to see how tirelessly long the days are full of laboring and providing for their families and us, as consumers. There is immense pride and care that shines through their work for you to see this is more than just a job for them.

My love for shellfish dwindled after this tour.

My love for NC Seafood only grew tenfold after this tour. See picture below for evidence.

Oyster Smiles

Oyster smiles are the best smiles

Kardia Doesn’t Skip a Beat

It’s no secret I’ve been a longtime fan of the Culinary and Nutrition team at UNC Rex Healthcare. I spent several months there during my dietetic internship and have always been impressed with the innovation and creativity their crew offers. All of the meals are tailor-made to meet every patient and guest’s nutrition needs while implementing current culinary trends.

Director of Culinary and Nutrition Services Jim McGrody, Executive Chef Ryan Conklin and their team have been the movers and shakers in the hospital food realm since the introduction of the Black Hat Chefs program in 2006. This program was founded by Jim in an effort to maintain the enthusiasm and culinary growth that’s crucial for any team, especially a large food service operation.

Many people may question how “culinary” and “hospital food” go together, but the Black Hat Chefs prove day in and day out that they run their hospital cafes just like any restaurant. Meals are customized to meet nutrition needs, but flavor or variety are never lacking.

As Rex Hospital recently expanded to include a multi-million dollar Heart & Vascular Hospital, Jim, Ryan and their team were faced with their next challenge. They knew they would have another cafe in the new digs, but which style of service and food cuisine did they want to offer? Over many hours of brainstorming and road trips of research, they created Kardia Cafe. The menu dishes up Mediterranean style food in a build-your-own format or you can choose a composed offering from the menu. As Kardia is the only cafe in this new cardiac hospital, it only made sense to serve a variety of foods that emphasized heart health. Mediterranean eating patterns have been found to be heart healthy as they incorporate a diverse array of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and fish. Although the exact ingredients vary from region to region along the Mediterranean Sea, Kardia tries to encapsulate it all by using varied herbs and spices, too.


Branda, Jim, Ryan and James


Kardia follows in the footsteps of Rex’s other cafes in that everything is as fresh as possible and local when feasible. While Jim and Ryan oversee things, Chef James and Branda run Kardia on a day-to-day basis to make sure things are smooth sailing. Although eating at a cafe inside of a hospital may seem unconventional, I can confidently say the meal was far fresher in quality and taste than just about every other salad place I’ve been to in the Triangle. You can’t beat the price, either. Where else can you get a freshly squeezed orange juice with a build your own salad of 5+ toppings for under $12?


Freshly squeezed OJ and a build-your-own salad

As a chef and dietitian, I’ve always known eating healthfully can be delicious. However, it’s motivating and inspiring on a completely different level to see what Rex is doing for hundreds of people on a daily basis. When you’re sick and in the hospital, it’s even more vital to have food that not only nourishes and heals you, but tastes good. Jim, Ryan and the entire Culinary and Nutrition team have been paving the way from the beginning to showcase this is not just a theory, but their practice, with their patrons.

Welcome to Taste Nutrition Consulting

I wanted to introduce myself to those who may have just started following and for those who’ve been there since the beginning days. My name is Tessa and I’m the chef and registered dietitian behind Taste Nutrition Consulting. I’m passionate about providing nutritious food options to clients while still maintaining the elevated culinary flair for cuisines from across the globe. This transpires through projects including recipe development/modification, cooking lessons and speaking engagements, to name a few.

My siblings and I all have food allergies, so learning how to cook was an essential skill for us to acquire at a young age. I loved being in the kitchen with my parents and learning recipes from our varied cultural backgrounds. This curiosity grew as time went on and I decided to head to culinary school. I chose Johnson & Wales University and my eyes were opened, once again, when I was introduced to their culinary nutrition program. I loved that food could not only taste good, but have a purpose of providing appropriate nourishment for our bodies. After graduating from JWU’s culinary nutrition program, I was accepted into Meredith College’s Dietetic Internship program and became a registered dietitian in 2014.

Taste Nutrition Consulting is the business I’ve envisioned since I started on my culinary nutrition journey. My skill set allows me to provide practical, individualized solutions for restaurants, food companies, associations and individual clients. As a chef and dietitian, I’m fortunate to be able to work across all specialty areas of nutrition because we all need to eat!

I hope this gives you a little insight into Taste Nutrition Consulting and a little bit about me. I love connecting with fellow culinary nutrition enthusiasts, so feel free to follow along with me on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. You can also email me if you have an idea on how we can work together.


FBCENC Celebrates National Nutrition Month

My friends and I teamed up last fall to create the Hottest Chefs of the Triangle Calendar. This inaugural calendar was a creative and fun way to highlight the many talented chefs we have here in the Triangle area of North Carolina. As my “calendar girls” and I are all involved in the food and hospitality industry, we wanted to give the profits back to a meaningful cause to all of us. We chose the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina (FBCENC from here on out, since it’s such a long name!) because they help so many of our neighbors and families here locally and are passionate about making sure #NoOneGoesHungry.

As we’re in the heart of National Nutrition Month, the FBCENC asked for a guest post to showcase how their fundamental mission of #NoOneGoesHungry really is rooted in providing nutritious, wholesome ingredients to families across their 34 county service area. Historically speaking, many people would often only list dry pantry items/canned goods as the things being donated and dispersed by a food bank. While these food items are incredibly important in helping to alleviate the issue of hunger, more light has been shed on the depth of many food bank programs, including the FBCENC. According to the FBCENC, the amount of food they distribute that falls under “dry goods” is only 40%. Produce, refrigerated goods, frozen foods and frozen meats compromise 59% of all the food dispersed to their clients.

The FBCENC celebrates National Nutrition Month’s theme of “Put Your Best Fork Forward” with its more than 64 million pounds of food donated last year alone. With 40% of that food being produce and lean protein, they’re changing the public conception of ingredients a food bank can provide for their clients. Their new distribution facility in Raleigh also offers over 15,000 square feet of refrigerated space to house perishable goods before being delivered to those in need.

The FBCENC is striving to provide both healthy food and nutrition education to their clients by collaborating with external partners, including registered dietitians and chefs. As a registered dietitian and chef myself, I often work with clients who have ready access to food – but many of our neighbors are struggling to find out where the food for their next meal is coming from. As the FBCENC moves forward in continuing to advocate their #NoOneGoesHungry campaign, I am proud to be involved in helping to spread the news and awareness of their mission, both as a Social Media Ambassador and through the Hottest Chefs of the Triangle Calendar. Take a look at your local food bank’s website to see how you can get involved or check out FBCENC’s site as a starting point.


Image provided by the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina

Flavor First, Fork Second

Spring is just around the corner with the sun making longer appearances and bright buds ready to bloom. It also means National Nutrition Month will be full of healthful tips and tricks of the trade provided by registered dietitians. In the spirit of National Nutrition Month, I hope to give you a little insight on how to Put Your Best Fork Forward this month and year-round when dining out.

As both a professional chef and restaurant reviewer, I’ve dined in my fair share of restaurants. From seedy hole-in-the-walls to top notch fine dining, there are a slew of ways to Put Your Best Fork Forward. Flavor doesn’t have to take a backseat when eating healthfully. Thinking through your options before diving in will ensure you leave satisfied, but still on track with your individual nutrition goals.

There’s a reason why registered dietitians love and emphasize the consumption of vegetables. They fill you up with nutrients and fiber without loading you down with excess calories. However, that doesn’t hold true if the veggies are doused in a heavy sauce full of cream, cheese or the like. You can live a little by ordering the sauce on the side, though. Put your best fork forward by practicing the fork-dip method. Pick the veggie up on your fork (or dining utensil of choice) and dip it sparingly into the sauce. That way each bite is packed with flavor and not needlessly drowned in the sauce. This will save you calories and give you the full appreciation for the vegetables. The same method goes for salads and dressings, too.

Don’t be afraid to order seconds when it comes to beverages. Water, unsweetened tea or seltzer with citrus wedges are great ways to stay hydrated and quench your thirst. Specialty cocktails, the second (or third) glass of wine and pints of beer add up on calories, but don’t necessarily satiate your stomach’s bank. Going out for drinks is one thing, but if you’re dining out, try shifting the focus to the conversation and quality meal ahead.

Sharing is caring when dining out. Many places are jumping on the bandwagon of tapas style dining, or small plates. Split a few of these small dishes with your date or group of friends. It’s an enjoyable way to try a variety of menu items without overdoing it and feeling uncomfortably full.

These are only a couple of general dining out tips, but it’s all a balancing act. Dining out has become a large part of our culture. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday, catching up with friends or even grabbing a meal on the way to/from work. Choose where you want to be a little decadent and where you can afford to be a little lean. When you Put Your Best Fork Forward during National Nutrition Month and throughout the year, you know you won’t be sacrificing flavor for nutritious bites.