For the love of food
How can the slow food movement be accelerated?
The people behind LET um EAT believe it’s all about making connections.
“There’s all these people in their own little pockets. You have people in the fields and you have chefs looking to source things, and looking for better ways to support farmers,” says Julia Niiro, CEO of the company founded in March 2014.
LET um EAT is a small group of young chefs, farmers and marketers with big ideas. In the spring of 2016, they plan to launch a mobile app they hope will speed the process of filling gaps between the three seeders (farmers), feeders (chefs and artisan producers) and eaters (people who eat).
“It’s really interesting that when we starting talking to a lot of farmers, we learned they don’t even realize the resource they need may be down the street,” Julia said. “Those smaller details became the larger concept of becoming this community. We’re connecting people at events through meals and then also in a digital sense to broaden that idea.”
Mud Mountain During a snowstorm in December, 2013, Karl Holl, his brother Alex Holl and friend James Serlin settled on a piece of property best described as a mud mountain on the southern end of the Eola-Amity Hills.
Karl and James, formerly chefs at renowned San Francisco Italian restaurant Perbacco, had moved to the area to head the kitchen at and help open Renata in Portland. Alex would farm produce, herbs and meat on their hilly property that Karl and James would use at the restaurant.
Corey Melanson, a chef at Larkspur Restaurant in Vail, Colorado, who also tended a garden for the eatery, joined the boys soon after they moved in.
Alex and Corey were tasked with creating a farm. Two problems existed: neither had experience as a farmer, and the property was, to the naked eye, unfarmable — highly sloped with no signs of vegetation.
Luckily, “We didn’t know any better. We weren’t farmers. We didn’t know,” Alex said. “It was a whole mudpit; nothing green,” Karl said, “So we started bringing loads of compost and just started. It’s all been learning. … They definitely learned to grow vegetables the hardest way possible.”
After a string of pop-up dinners preparing for Renata’s opening, they had what Karl simply calls a falling out with the owner, which left them in an unfamiliar area with plenty of questions about what to do next.
Julia is a college friend of Corey’s who spent the beginning of her professional life with a large marketing and publishing company.
“We put our heads together one day and said, ‘how do we pool our talents?” Julia said. “There was this really common thread and recognition about how hard the food industry is, and how many amazing people there are out there doing really hard work. We all kind of said, ‘how can we as a group make it easier for them, for us, for everyone to continue to do what they do.’”
It’s a moment they call the great universe smash.
“Ultimately, we felt the way to do that was to connect them.”
Their goal was to create a food-centric digital platform to connect those in the community, a platform that could be used across the country. They cannot help but be overzealous in their aspirations, Julia said.
“If you can take a mud mountain into a farm and grow more food than we even needed this year, then you say, ‘let’s see what else we can do,’” Julia said. “It’s been a good metaphor for us, this property.”
Takeover dinners The crew founded the company, launched a website and opened up social media profiles for LET um EAT.
They set out to profile farms and restaurants who source locally and tell their stories on the website, letumeat.com. The process highlighted businesses that fit into what they began calling their collective, and also allowed the group new to Oregon to make their own connections. That’s helped them face certain challenges, especially on the farm.
“Within building the collective and going out and profiling all these other farmers and seeing the other farms and being able to learn from them” has been great, said Corey who has also attended small farm classes at the Oregon State University Extension. “Kara at Vibrant Valley has kind of become my mentor. If I have a question, I just call her up.”
Meanwhile, there was rent to pay, so the boys did what they do best: cook amazing food for eaters to enjoy. They started with weekend dinners at Henry’s Diner, a food truck in Carlton. A personal connection helped them get work for events at Soter Vineyards — Director of Hospitality and Events Julia Bandy-Smith went to culinary school with Karl and James. The popular winery has been their biggest supporter, Karl said.
“It was an easy in into the valley in many senses,” he said. “We wouldn’t have half the business without the events we did there.”
Next, the crew began putting on pop-up dinners, which they branded as the LET um EAT Takeover Dinners series. They were put on at collective members who the team profiled on the website, like Thistle Restaurant in McMinnville and Pastaworks in Portland.
“It just made sense to use these events to highlight all the local farmers (chefs and artisan producers), and showcase what they're doing,” Julia said.
The dinners also support the mission to connect with others.
“Actually hosting dinners and inviting them to sit down with each other, which is pretty critical. Obviously, that was something most of this group knew how to do really well,” Julia said.
Leah Scafe has been integral in that aspect. She is a former director of Outstanding in the Field, a traveling farm-to-table series that stages events around the country. “She was kind of nomadic in a sense,” Julia said. "She spent a decade cultivating deep relationships with farmers and chefs across the country. It was amazing to hear her stories.”
With so many different backgrounds and talents making up the LET um EAT team, “I think we have a rare ability to connect with people right away,” Julia said. “Using that LET um EAT brand to propel and connect these people, I don’t think there’s a fear that the idea can’t be moved around the country.”
Unveiling the app
Alex said the digital products isn’t just for farmers and chefs.
“Talking to people with nothing to do with the food industry liked the idea,” he said. “When they travel, when people go on vacation, it’s more and more prevalent that they want to eat good food all the time. The discovery end to that will be awesome.”
In a way, the means of connecting through a digital platform has been tested on the LET um EAT team themselves.
“(Julia) watched us moving from California and leaving something we built the whole decade with farmers, and had this deep connection to where our food was coming from,” Karl said. “We would talk to farmers every morning, and talk to fisherman every morning.
“She watched us try to reconnect with our food. … Imagine how many chefs move from here to there and how many farmers move from here to here, and how do they reconnect? Ideally, what we're trying to do is bridge the gap for people having the struggle of the disconnection and through a digital platform.”
But while social media tends to develop impersonal relationships in today’s society, LET um EAT believes their mission can avoid those pitfalls because at the end of the day, it’s about sitting around a table and sharing great food, drinks and stories.
“Food is personal. Food is this really amazing outlet for people to actually connect,” Julia said. “It’s tangible. It’s results oriented, whether you’re growing it, you’re cooking it or you’re eating it.”