Friday, December 9, 2011

Standing on the Precipice

Have you ever felt like you're not sure whether you're excited or about to throw up?  

The owner of the historic textile mill has accepted our rent offer!  Our real estate agent had lunch with him today to submit our counter to his counter to our initial offer on rent and he took it.  Follow that?  And then they drank single malt scotch to celebrate the fact that it's not either of them who has to pay the rent on the space! 

So - here it is in its current state:

This place is incredible.  The gorgeously restored wood beam ceilings are well over 20 feet high at the center and the original 10+ foot tall windows line both sides of the space.  The floors are original hardwood and the walls are exposed brick.  It's rough and industrial and sun soaked and comfortable and grand.  

We'll be taking about 2500 square feet of space and building out for a restaurant of about 70 seats.  Construction may take about four months as there are improvements the landlord will be making before our guys can even get in there.  So, we're aiming for a May 1, 2012 opening and our doors will be open before that if it's at all humanly possible!  

 I'd love to be able to post our architect's sketches for the space but I haven't quite figured out how.  Definitely to come - I promise!  For now, I just have to say this - Brendan is going to have WINDOWS in his kitchen.  A bit of explanation for those of you who aren't chefs.

The view from Brendan's kitchen windows
Chefs spend about 15 hours a day, often 6 days a week, in a windowless room that is approximately 120 degrees.  Their breaks are quite frequently spent sitting on a plastic crate in a back alley, not far from the dumpster.  They are creatures of the night, not venturing out of the depths of the steamy kitchen until nearly midnight.  They are pale and the sun makes them squint.  It's a glamorous life.

So, when I tell you that Brendan will have not one, not two, but THREE giant windows lining one entire wall of his kitchen, you may be able to appreciate how excited he is.  And not only will he have windows, but they look out over a large green space and the woods.  And the landlord is even open to allowing us to plant a kitchen garden in that space - so one day the cooks will be able to take a leisurely stroll outside to choose their herbs.  Heaven!

On the west side of the space, there's a gigantic, metal sliding door.  It's the original fire door for the space.  On the right hand side, there's a pulley with a weight that holds the door open.  If there was a fire, and it burned through the rope that held the weight, the door would automatically close.   

On the far side of this sliding door is a huge space that is used as a performing arts venue.  Plays, concerts, art installations and mardi gras parties are some of the recent uses for the space.  We envision pre-event dining in the restaurant and then when the doors for the performance open, we can simply roll back the door and patrons can stroll right into the next part of their evening.  

 As if the possibility of adding our own kitchen garden wasn't good enough, right next door to our space is an organic co-op grocery that carries produce, meat and dairy from local farms.  If we run out of something, we can simply step next door.

This picture to the left is taken from
the front porch of the grocery store.
Our space is in the center - the line of windows.

In the picture to the right, you can see the view of the mill building from the parking lot.  A path leads through a pollinator garden planted and maintained by the local agriculture extension office.  Because it was planted specifically to provide food for local pollinators, there is something blooming at least 9 months of the year!

Finally, on Saturday mornings, the local farmer's market sets up in the lower parking lot - so Brendan will be able to pick up ingredients straight from the farmers!  We're thinking a Saturday brunch will pair perfectly with a morning out to the farmer's market.

The best part of all?  The mill is all of 2 miles from our farm.  Brendan could WALK to work.  The kids and I will be able to drop in and see him any time we wish.  Once in a while, he may even be able to duck out in the mid-afternoon for an hour to watch soccer practice!  Unfathomable!

We're standing on the precipice now - about to begin the biggest job we'll ever undertake (not counting being parents).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Apparently, Thanksgiving is next week which just seems impossible to me.  This fall has slipped by in a blur of school, extracurricular activities and work.  So many things have been left undone and so much, yet nothing, has happened.  As this is the natural time of year to reflect on things for which we are thankful, I wanted to get back on the blog.  

As you might have guessed from my radio silence on the issue, we did not end up with the restaurant space in Chapel Hill.  After I last wrote, we waited yet another two full weeks before hearing a final decision from the building owner.  He ultimately chose another restaurant concept for the space - Indian.  Which I find a strange choice.  Don't get me wrong, I love Indian food.  Mmmm, samosas.  But, there are 4 other Indian restaurants already located on the SAME STREET.  But, it's his building and his choice and I wish them the best of luck.  

We thought we really wanted this restaurant space.  And, it would have been great.  There has not been, and likely never will be, another space requiring so little work and upfront cost.  But, the low upfront costs were balanced out by high occupancy costs so we would have paid for it one way or another.  We were so disappointed to lose the Chapel Hill space. 

And then a small coffee shop in our tiny town of Pittsboro closed.  We called a local architect to meet us and discuss possibilities for the space.  It turned out that the coffee shop was just too small but it paid off for us in an unexpected way.  Our architect urged us to come visit the building where he keeps his office.  
It's a renovated 1920's textile mill, sitting on a hill just on the north side of town.  There are soaring, exposed wood beam ceilings and hardwood floors.  Huge windows line the original brick walls.  Outside, there is a fantastic pollinator garden, planted and maintained by our local agriculture agent.  The lower parking lot of the building is the site of the weekly farmer's market.  

So, I find myself thankful for losing the Chapel Hill location.  We'd talked about the Mill before but thought the space we wanted was already leased to an art gallery.  The art installation, we've since found out, is temporary and the ideal space is available.  We've been working with our architect on sketches for the space and have arrived at a plan we love.  We're meeting with the building owner tomorrow to discuss more specifics about a potential lease.  I'm trying very hard not to get overly excited about the space since there are still a hundred different reasons this might not work out but it's difficult.  We'll know more after the meeting tomorrow and I promise to update the blog faithfully!  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hurry Up and Wait

It's been a LONG time since I've updated the blog.  I haven't decided to stop doing it, it's just that I've been putting off writing because I keep thinking I'm going to have some huge news to report on the restaurant front.  Well, there's still not an announcement to make but I figure the whole point of this blog is to document the experience and the process.

Since we moved to NC, we've been working with a real estate broker, searching for the right restaurant space.  We've seen several locations.

We looked at a location in a brand new mixed use building - a pristine white shell.  They wanted a ridiculous amount of money for rent and we'd have to construct a restaurant from the ground up.  No thank you.

We seriously considered buying out the aging owner of a neighborhood restaurant that is housed in a historic bungalow just a couple of blocks from the Carrboro Farmer's Market.  What we couldn't seriously consider was his asking price.

We loved the tiny restaurant space that was tucked in a picturesque courtyard and which was outfitted beautifully - a little jewel box.  But, the owner all but specifically told us not to buy the space due to an unreasonable landlord and major construction which is planned for the building and which would undoubtedly affect business.

We didn't like the nondescript storefront Indian restaurant with the acoustical tile ceiling at all.  We rejected the strip mall space without even looking at it.

The funky free-standing building with an outdoor patio had potential but it was tucked on a back street that wasn't a very good location.

And then...

Our agent called to tell us that a restaurant right on Franklin Street had abruptly closed.  Were we interested?  Um, yes.  Franklin Street is the main drag in Chapel Hill.  East Franklin Street is mainly bars, fast food chains and souvenir shops as the University Campus abuts the street.  The West Franklin side of the street is populated by more upscale restaurants, funky shops, coffeehouses and music venues.  A bit quieter, more neighborhoody, but still easily accessible by foot from the campus.

We went to see the space the very next day.  The restaurant that had occupied the space was fine dining but had been poorly managed financially and the slow summer months in a college town were the death knell.  This is a sad story, especially since the restaurant had enjoyed critical success.  As is always the case, however - one man's loss is another man's gain.

We REALLY like this space.  It's a bit larger than Brendan's dream space but is better suited to reality.  There's a bar that seats about 15 and two dining rooms.  The largest dining space seats 42 and the smaller, back dining room seats 24-30.  Having the dining area split like this is perfect for private functions.  The kitchen is roomy and well equipped and there's plenty of storage and office space.  The best feature?  It has its own private parking lot.  If you know anything about college towns, you know how precious that parking lot is.


We made a lease offer on the space within 5 days of seeing it, offering less than what the owner was asking in rent.  Unfortunately, we weren't the only people who recognized the potential in the space.  Apparently, there were upwards of 10 offers!  Even in this economy!  The reality is that an essentially turn key space within walking distance of campus and the heart of Chapel Hill  just doesn't come along very often.


The owner of the building took more than a week to respond to the lease offers.  The waiting was excruciating.  We knew that at least some of the offers for the space were from national chains.  This could be good or bad for us.  Good if the owner doesn't want a national franchise in his building.  Bad if he cares mostly about deep pockets instead of our fledgling start up.  Did we low ball our offer and shoot ourselves in the foot?


Finally, the owner responded to about 5 of the potential tenants - and we were one of them!  Yay!  But, we're still only 1 of 5.  Would we accept his counter offer?  We quickly deliberated and decided that we would.


And then, in the middle of it all, the owner's real estate agent leaves for a two week Mediterranean cruise.  The owner isn't comfortable working with anyone else, so everything is on hold for two weeks.  I'm paranoid.  Maybe this is a ruse and they're actually negotiating with someone else and just leaving us dangling on the hook in case their preferred tenant doesn't work out.  Our agent's assurances that this is certainly not so don't comfort me.


This past Tuesday - the agent is back in town and the owner wants to meet with us in person.  Can we meet the next day at 2pm?  Of course we can.  Except we also have dinner scheduled with some friends/investors for that night so we'll be out for half the day.  Scramble to find childcare.  Regular babysitter is booked so call my parents.  Will they please pick up the kids from school and keep them for 7 hours?  The most wonderful people in the world don't hesitate - of course they will.

The owner is pleasant, affable.  We chat for nearly an hour and a half about what we plan to do with his building.  He seems receptive and positive.  We all talk about the space as if we have already rented it.  Is this a sign?  But then they mention that there are 2 other prospective tenants they're still talking to.  So, we're one of three.   I feel like we're on a reality show where people are regularly booted off.


They'll be in touch soon.  By the beginning of next week for sure.


And then this morning, an email asking for our financial statement.  As soon as possible, please.  Sent.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Adventures in Canning

And they're off!
It's official - I don't have babies anymore.  Truth is, I haven't had a baby for a long time but I've been living in denial and everyone has just been too nice to say anything.  But, Evan turned 5 on Tuesday and he started Kindergarten today.  Charlotte started first grade and Catie entered third grade yesterday.  There's just no way to pretend all this isn't happening.  Do you think that's why we got a puppy?  A subconcious desire to fill the empty nest?  Distraction is a good thing.

So, I'm taking on a new distraction - canning.  Our fig trees have produced a bumper crop of figs seemingly overnight (and there are more coming) and I've been taught yet another lesson about farm life.  When the fruit is ready, you better be ready, because it's not going to wait for you to research what to do with 300 figs.  Figs ripen fast and they get over-ripe fast.  And the birds and squirrels and chickens all love figs so I'm in a race with them as well.  To make matters worse, figs don't ripen once you pick them, so you can't pick them early.  AND, they only last, fresh, 2-3 days after picking, so there's really not much time to "fig"ure it out.  I know, sorry.  

Turns out there's quite a lot you can do with fresh figs.  If you've never had a fresh fig - get your hands on some.  I'd never had them outside of Fig Newtons and frankly, that's the same thing as never having had one.  Fresh figs are delicate fruits, gently sweet with a texture unique to itself.  There are tons of seeds, but they're tiny and rather than being gritty they simply impart a slight graininess that is really pleasant.  Figs can be canned whole or sliced, made into a honeyed tea compote, dried, baked into cakes and made into fig butter and preserves.  Lots of fabulous stuff.  I don't have that kind of time so I'm just picking one thing.  I'm going to attempt to make fig preserves.  

I've never canned anything before - ever.  My mother canned vegetables.  I remember her putting up green beans for winter.  I'm sure she did other vegetables as well, but for some reason it's the green beans I remember.  It always frightened me a little - the big pressure cooker, all the sterilized jars and tongs and lids, laid out on clean towels.  It was like a surgical procedure and I stayed out of the way.  She never, as far as I know, made preserves.  I have a vague recollection of tomatoes.  But, the point is, I have no previous personal experience or even first hand observation experience with this task, so this should be interesting.

First - sterilize the jars and lids.  In days of yore, you had to boil them.  Lucky me, I have a dishwasher with a sanitize setting.  I'm doing small jars of fig jam (4 and 8 oz).  I am planning to give out jars of fig jam to everyone I know because I'm THAT confident that this is going to turn out wonderfully.  And if not, at least each person will only have to throw away a small jar of it, right?

Next, I chopped up the figs.  Based on the numbers of figs needed for one batch, it looks like I'll be making about 4 batches of jam.  I'm going to need more jars.  I didn't chop them very small because they'll obviously break down when cooked and it would be great to have a little chunk
of fig here and there in the jam.  According to my research (asking Brendan) there's no need to peel the figs.  But, Brendan's never made preserves either so we'll see if that was good advice.

Figs are low in pectin (which is sort of like gelatin and makes the jam set up) so you have to add it, either by mixing in a high pectin fruit or powdered pectin.  I went with powdered because the last thing I need around here is more fruit!

I was really surprised at how quick and easy it was to make the jam itself.  Why haven't I ever done this before??  For those of you playing our game at home, here's the recipe:

Fig Jam
4-5 cups chopped figs (wash gently with cold water, de-stem and remove bottoms)
1 pkg pectin (I used the regular kind but you can get no-sugar pectin)
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice
6 1/2 cups sugar

Mix pectin with 1/4 cup sugar.  Put chopped figs, water, lemon juice, and pectin/sugar mixture into a pot and bring to a boil.  When at a full boil, add the remaining 6 1/4 cups of sugar.  Stir well and bring back to a boil.  Boil hard for 1 minute then remove from heat.  Use a cold metal spoon (keep it in ice water) to get a small sample of jam.  Let it cool for a couple of minutes and see if the consistency is what you wish.  If not, add more pectin (1/5 pkg or so) and bring back to a hard boil for 1 more minute, then test again.  Once desired consistency is reached, let stand for 5 minutes then stir well.  Ladle into hot, sterilized jars and top with rings and lids.  Place full jars into a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.  Let cool overnight.

I made the first batch of jam last night - 16, 4oz jars.  15 of them sealed properly, but one did not.  This is not a huge problem.  It just means that jam needs to be eaten now rather than put up in storage.  Brendan and I tried the jam this morning and it was really good.  The color is a transparent reddish pink and the flavor is perfectly figgy.  It will be wonderful on biscuits or scones - yum!

View of pieces of fig in jam
Waiting for their water bath

The verdict?  Making jam is super easy and you should all try it.  I will warn you that it is hot work and I do mean absolutely miserably hot.  The jam is cooking, the jars are hot, and there's a gigantic pot of boiling water on the stove.  I was drenched by the time I was finished last night but steam is good for your skin, right?  Also, when the jam is at a full boil, it can bubble and pop like a volcano and hot lava is a pretty good analogy for what boiling sugar feels like on your skin - so be careful about that.

Based on the first batch, I will have 48 jars of jam by the end of today.  I hope y'all like jam because a lot of you will be getting some soon!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Dogs and Deja Vu

Brendan has been lobbying for a puppy since the day we closed on the farm.  If it were up to him we'd have six dogs and they'd be sleeping in bed with us.  I have steadfastly refused his pleas, arguing that we need to at least install an invisible fence before getting another dog.  I also point out that we have a history of acquiring naughty dogs.

Sadie is our current dog.  She's a seven year old standard collie and is generally well behaved but for a few exceptions.  Sadie chases deer and we are lousy with them so she has lots to chase.  This wouldn't be a problem if she'd give up the chase when reaching the boundary of our property but she will keep up pursuit into the woods or into the neighbors horse fields or worst - across the road.  She's also a highly accomplished barker.  She alerts us to the arrival of guests, the presence of the deer in the field, the "escape" of one of the children from the house, and any and all transgressions of the cat.  It's a high pitched bark that will pierce your very soul.  However, the deer chasing and barking are nothing compared to her real talent - food stealing.  All unsupervised food is fair game but children are her preferred target as they frequently hold food in one hand and look the other way.  Just last weekend, she tried to take a slice of pizza away from a 21 month old visitor.  The baby fought back, holding tightly to her dinner, which resulted in her being dragged from her chair onto the floor in the ensuing tug of war.  The child, despite tears, was fine.  The dog won the contest and was subsequently locked in the kitchen.  

Sadie, though, is an angel compared to our previous dog, The Mighty Quinn.  Quinn was found along with his brother (Coolidge) on the mean streets of Washington, DC.  Brendan and his then roommate, Sam, adopted the puppies - a mix of black lab and great dane.  A noble idea, but since the guys were both chefs who worked 15 hour days, often six days a week, they were never home to properly train the dogs.  It also didn't help that they lived in a run down townhouse on the VERY shady side of Capitol Hill that they didn't care about.  So, the guys let the dogs run amuck in the house.  Quinn's destructive abilities are legendary.  Before he was six months old he ripped up several sofas, ate drywall and chewed countless chair legs and shoes.

Quinn as an old man
Brendan and I moved in together after getting engaged and Quinn moved in with us too - all 135lbs of him.  Changing the destructive aspects of his behaviour proved beyond us.   He ate a mattress, more drywall, and another couch.  He could open the refrigerator and I once came home to find that he had pulled a carton of eggs out and had a feast.  He ate an entire roast chicken, bones and all.  We had to keep our trash can top secured with bungee cords.  He was a bully at the dog park.  He once managed to clear an entire room after Brendan fed him sausage balls.  While I was driving 40 mph, Quinn climbed out of the open rear passenger window and tumbled head over heels onto the road and into oncoming traffic.  Luckily, the cars were able to stop.  I jumped out of the car, expecting him to be seriously injured.  Quinn, however, stood up, shook, walked calmly back to the car, and jumped in.  His masterpiece of destruction came just two weeks before our wedding when Quinn opened the closet door, pulled down my cathedral length train and ripped it to shreds.  I came home to find him lying contentedly among the remnants of tulle and seed pearls.  He's lucky he survived that day.  I spent the next Saturday with my fabulous mother in law to be, making a homemade replacement veil.  One of my fondest memories of Susan is that day when we sat on her living room floor hot gluing pearls to the veil.  And it turned out beautifully.  To make up for all this, Quinn was an awesome dog.  He was devoted and protective and funny in ways that only dogs are. He was so large that he would sit on the couch much like a human.  Bottom on the couch, front legs on the floor.  He slept with us, not curled in a ball, but with his legs fully extended, so that he pushed us to the very edges of the bed.

When our oldest daughter, Catie, was born, Quinn was freaked out.  He didn't like that we were constantly carrying something and would jump up, trying to get the bundle we were cradling.  Her cries were a new sound and he didn't like them.  He would have never intentionally hurt her, but his head was larger than her entire body and so when my parents offered to have Quinn come live with them, we accepted.  Brendan drove Quinn to the NC state line to meet my parents, crying the entire way.
Enjoying the woods

While living with my parents, Quinn ate yet another couch, some more drywall and a garage door.  He destroyed a screen door during a thunderstorm.  He was terrified of thunderstorms.  He could open gate latches so my parents padlocked the gate.  He ate the chain link fence itself in order to escape!  He ran out into the road and was hit by a truck.  That time, he didn't get up - my Dad and brother had to load him onto a trailer that was hitched to the riding lawn mower to move him.  The vet said a smaller dog would have been killed.  Quinn recovered but had arthritis in his shoulder from that point on.

The larger the dog, the shorter their life span and dogs Quinn's size have an average life span of 9 years. Quinn lived to the ripe old age of 11.  When he was too weak to get up and no longer wanted to eat, the vet recommended that he be put to rest.  My father went with him and held him til he passed, crying the entire time.  Quinn was a good dog and we were all devastated to lose him last fall.
A gentle giant with the kids
I know Brendan loves dogs but I also know who ends up taking care of the dogs while he works 80 hours a week.  I don't want a puppy.  I did want a new kitten (SO much easier to take care of).  So, when I saw on a local chatlist that a woman had found two kittens near her house, I emailed her to see about getting one of the kittens.  Unfortunately, she said, she'd just found a home for both kittens the day before but she still had the puppy.  Did I know anyone who wanted a puppy?  Apparently the country road she lives on is a common dumping ground for unwanted animals and when she finds them, she keeps them until she can find them new homes.

I told her I'd ask around to see if I knew anyone who wanted a puppy and could she tell me a bit about it?  She sent me a picture of this for pete's sake.

And so now we have a puppy - Jasper.  He's about 10 weeks old and shows a great proclivity for destruction.  In just 10 days, he has chewed through two dog leashes, put a hole in a dog bed, gnawed on a kitchen chair leg and destroyed several dog toys.  He's chewed on several shoes, torn a hole in one of Evan's shirts and chases the chickens every chance he gets.  He doesn't like thunderstorms and he can find any tiny scrap of "people" food that may fall or be unsupervised.  He's only about 18 pounds right now and we're not sure how large he'll be.  We can see several different breeds of dog in him - lab, border collie, some sort of hound, maybe some terrier?  His final size will depend on what he got from which breed.  He'll certainly not be anywhere close to as large as Quinn but I have a feeling he'll make a name for himself in the naughtiness department.

Earlier today, Brendan said that he knows Jasper is his own individual.  However, he's feeling a bit like Jasper is Quinn, come back to us in miniature form.  A foundling black puppy with a penchant for destruction and a fear of thunderstorms.  Dog deja vu, I guess.  Welcome home, Jasper.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Learning from our mistakes

Lunch with some of our best friends from Virginia!
It's visiting time here in Pittsboro which has kept me from updating the blog recently.  We have no less than six different sets of guests scheduled for the months of July and August and so when we're not entertaining these guests, I'll be frantically cleaning the house trying to get ready for the next set.  Please don't get me wrong - I am NOT complaining about this.  I am over the moon that our friends and family are willing to make the trek to see us and would love to see even more of you, so please come anytime!!  The more, the merrier - seriously.

Aside from our visitors, things are pretty quiet on the farm right now.  Our poor garden has suffered tremendously from the drought we're experiencing.  It hasn't rained at our house in over two weeks and there's not a good chance of rain any time soon.  In addition, we have received a massive attack of squash bugs which took out our pumpkin plant and some of our squash.  The surviving squash are hanging on and I think (knock on wood) recovering a tiny bit.  The bug invasion has really frustrated me.  Clearly, the fault is ours due to our inexperience and lack of knowledge.  We are dedicated to using organic and sustainable practices on the farm, which means no pesticides or herbicides but that's not the problem.  This first year, we've been very laissez faire about the garden and have just sort of been watching and hoping that it would grow well with little interference from us.

This has led to tedious fights with weeds which entrench themselves everywhere and do not seem to need water to survive.  It's led to the devastation of our squash and pumpkins.  And, not knowing enough about soil has led to blossom end rot on some of our tomatoes (a calcium deficiency).  A lack of suitable fencing has allowed rabbits and our chickens to enter the garden and feast.  We've learned that you shouldn't plant corn and tomatoes immediately next to each other - which, of course, we did.  Despite all this, however, the garden has limped along and provided us with enough produce for our family and then some.  This is pretty typical of what we can harvest on any given day:

Brendan has even been able to sell a couple of hundred dollars worth of produce to his restaurant.  These few sales have almost completely covered the expenses of our garden for this year, and that doesn't count the money we've saved by not having to buy as much produce at the grocery for our own consumption.

I mentioned once before that we are planning to abandon row gardening this fall and convert the existing vegetable garden to raised beds.  I wish I had done more research into this before we moved.  In my defense, there wasn't exactly any spare time in which to do that before the move or during the first three months here when I was doing the single parent thing in a new town!  But, I digress.  We are converting to raised beds and so I've been doing lots of research on intensive planting methods, companion and succession planting, and how to attract beneficial insects to the garden (to eat those hated squash bugs).

I've settled on creating a potager - a french kitchen garden.  The potager combines vegetables, herbs and flowers which creates not just a beautiful garden but an efficient one as well.  The potager is traditionally laid out in a highly geometric and symmetrical fashion, like the one below.

This is not the plan I've chosen - I've actually drawn one up on graph paper that we will now have to somehow turn into reality.  We do not plan to use curved beds, simply because we'll be constructing our beds from timber and it's just too difficult to do curves.  I just think this diagram is particularly pretty.

Within each of the individual beds, we'll plant several different kinds of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that act as good companions, meaning that they benefit each other in some way.  The flowers provide color and texture to the bed but they also attract pollinators and beneficial insects that will protect our vegetables.  Herbs, when paired properly, can enhance the flavors of certain vegetables and are useful in their own right.  We'll be constructing a proper fence that will keep out all the critters with whom we do not wish to share the harvest.  Our curent fence is a 4 ft tall picket fence but it only extends around two sides of the garden.  The other sides are exposed.  The new fence will completely enclose the garden and be tall enough to fence out the deer.  It's likely look much like this example:

All of this will likely begin in early October - pictures will be posted of our progress.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer homes for chickens

It's been a scattered kind of week.  I thought this entire post would be about our chickens but some pressing issues regarding our future use of our land have come up today and that's in the front of my mind.

Cockerel roosting in one of our fig trees
First, the chickens.  They're 13 weeks old now and really coming into their own.  The roosters have started to crow, which is one of the highlights of my day.  The sound of a young rooster's voice changing is hilarious.  It sounds a bit like a yodeller who's losing his voice.  And we have eight roosters at the moment so you can imagine what it currently sounds like around my house.  They are ridiculously happy chickens and so much fun to watch.  In the morning, Brendan goes out to give them fresh water and open up the chicken coop.  They all rush out as though the doors have opened for a Christmas sale.  Then, they wait.  They wait for the lead rooster to decide it's safe to cross the open ground between the coop and the closest fig tree.  Once he goes they all follow - in a half run, half flying dash.

They adore the fig tree - it must have the most delicious bugs living underneath it.  Also, the average temperature here has been around 94 for almost a month now and the fig gives tremendous shade.  It's probably a good 15 degrees cooler under it.  I've taken to calling this particular fig tree the Chicken's Summer House.

You may remember that these chickens are part of a recovery project by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy.  We're raising these endangered heritage chickens for eggs and meat, but also to help with the repopulating of the Java, a beautiful bird that was once the most popular American chicken.  Our friends from the ALBC came out to the farm a few days ago to do a first evaluation of our flock.  The plan is to identify the very best birds for breeding and then swap some birds around between the grow out farms so that the best of the genetic line will continue and the number of Javas will grow.  Imperfect birds will be used to provide eggs for consumption and meat.

Separating hens from roosters
Checking the spine 
Tagging the wing of a great bird
 Brendan and I were really excited to learn how to evaluate our chickens.  Every part of the bird was examined, from its head and chest size to the flatness of its back and fleshiness.  Each bird was weighed and it's color was checked for breed standard conformity.  It was like our own personal Westminster Show for chickens.  Apparently I'm Mom even to the chickens because I felt real pride when a they were impressed with a particular bird and I felt badly for the rejected birds, as though I  were somehow responsible for their failings.

Blue tag on wing of impressive rooster
 Catie and Charlotte were fascinated by this event and were eager to show off their chicken handling skills (Evan was at camp).  Steven and Jeannette (from ALBC) were wonderful with the kids and were excited to teach the next generation.
Evaluating breast meat "fleshiness"
Assistants helping out

All in all, we tagged two of the eight roosters and six of the fourteen hens.  These eight birds will be evaluated again around 20 weeks of age to see which ones will be best for breeding.  Some of our best birds will leave us to go to another grow out farm and we will receive other birds in order to keep the genetic lines mixed.

In addition to evaluating our birds, we talked briefly about what animal we should add to our farm next.  We want to continue with heritage breeds and the ALBC has kindly agreed to help us evaluate our land and give us advice on potential ways to lay it out so that we will eventually be able to have all the livestock we wish to have as well has maximizing our cropland.

And that's what's bugging me today.  A while back, I told you about how Evan had an intestinal parasite and we initially thought our well may have become contaminated.  The well was fine - Evan just wasn't washing his hands well enough (a common occurrence for a 4 year old boy, I suppose).  But, in our inspection of the well, we did find out that our well is extremely shallow - only 75ft.  Most wells today are dug to a depth of 200 feet or more.  And, while our water is sufficient for our family's needs, it is likely not going to be enough to grow our farm.  Crops have to be irrigated and animals watered and it takes a LOT of water.  So, we've been advised to dig a new well.  This is not an inexpensive proposition, however, and I'm not sure about it.

Brendan has always wanted to get off the grid as much as possible.  I'm all for it in theory but the reality is I like the conveniences of being connected to the grid.  It would take a large number of solar panels to power everything in our house and the only place we have to put them is in the field which would take up room we'd like to have for livestock.  But, I've been thinking a lot today about installing a cistern as a potential answer to our problem.  A cistern is essentially the same thing as having rain barrels, just on a larger scale.  We could get a 1500 gallon cistern to collect rainwater and use that for the crops and animals and only rely on the existing well for the needs of the house.  We might still eventually have to dig a new well, but we could put it off and be more green in the process.  What do you think?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day on the Farm

Daddy and Catie
There is something deeply rewarding from having a child be so interested in cooking with you that they perch themselves on the counter and add salt in pinches or want to “mix! mix! mix!” at every opportunity.  That has now extended to the modest vegetable patch where my junior pickers keep an enthusiastic eye on what could be finished, not ripe, but finished.  Today, they helped me gather cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, basil, rosemary, lemon verbena and banana peppers to use in our dinner.  I am a very lucky man on this Father’s day.  Big shout out to all the Big Papa’s - especially new ones, like Sammy, and ones that came out of retirement,  like Barry.                   

Daddy and Charlotte

Daddy and Evan

Leslie tells me that people want to know about the restaurant and you can count me in that group as well.  We’ve seen a few locations and talked about their pros and cons numerous times, but the right space hasn’t presented itself as of yet.  One space needs too much infrastructure another has a less desirable locale.  Another wants a ridiculous amount for the business and yet another’s rent is too high.  Heck, after starting out with the firm belief in Chapel Hill/Carrboro being the only place we would ever want to have the restaurant, our new hometown of Pittsboro seems to be becoming a frontrunner.  The restaurant needs to have a sense of place and allows us an opportunity to be a part of our own community.  However Pittsboro is a small town and how many people are going out to eat at a higher end restaurant on a regular basis?  There is definitely the population and money here.  In addition to farms, upscale commuter neighborhoods, golf club communities, and retirement hubs also surround us.   They all have to drive to Chapel Hill, Durham or Raleigh for a really good meal and don’t you think they’d rather be able to stay close to home?   The real question is whether we can get the foodies from the cities to come here for dinner? 

Locations aside, my time in NC has given me new insight into the market here. True believer farms that have exquisite products surround us, in season, there’s a market every day and it’s a long growing season.  It goes without saying that this base of farmers can buoy us as the farm ramps up production in the coming years and will be there when we need seriously good ingredients.  I found a small fishmonger in Carrboro, which is encouraging and have made some contacts along the coast for some real boutique fish and shellfish. There’s a ton of good meat to be had here as well.  The cards are stacked for “ingredient-driven”, seasonal cuisine.  Except for the fact that even Ruby Tuesday’s does the freakin’ seasonal thing now.  It’s become a hollow marketing centerpiece, an empty promise, de rigueur.  What then is the chefs to do in order to differentiate themselves?  Xantham Gum, molecular gastronomy weirdness, the foraging rage?  How about dropping all the BS pretensions and giving people some kick-ass, high-end food in a setting that doesn’t have them worrying about which stupid fork to use.

We’re going for that last one.  Our restaurant will be a small and personal expression of what we believe about food and hospitality.   No stuffiness, overly formal or elaborate service dances - just simple interactions with people and excellent food.  Some things you might see:  Halibut with Fresh Corn Polenta and Lobster Jus; Warm Chanterelle, Frisee and Bacon Salad with Our Poached Egg and Mustard; Pittsboro “Spring”, Baby Vegetables from our Garden, Raw and Cooked; Warm Fig Tree Farm Honey Madeleines with Mission Fig Compote.  We’ll have a bit of flash on the plate, but not too many bells and whistles.  I see if somebody is looking for “that” restaurant, the one that has a sense of place and delicious food and where they get treated better than anyplace else (but not coddled) we aim to be it.  Oh, and with a lot of bourbon.  We’ll let you know when we open – come see us. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time Flies

It's hard for me to believe that I'm writing the tenth post for this blog.  Can ten weeks really have passed already?  We must have been having a blast because time really has flown!  We've already been through an entire Spring here in North Carolina and it's been incredibly busy.  Don't get me wrong, there are days when it seems like nothing at all happens and I just sit on the patio and watch the hummingbirds at the feeder.  But there are days that have been doozies as we've tried to fulfill our plans for this place.

We have big plans.  For the farm, for our restaurant, for ourselves.  It's a lot to keep straight and figuring out how to make it all happen is complicated to say the least.

Were this all entirely up to Brendan, we would have been trying to fit five years worth of work into one year.  He wanted to buy a farm, renovate the house, relocate the family to a new state, get chickens, bees, rabbits, pigs, and goats, and open a restaurant all at the same time.  I love him and his enthusiasm, but we might both be in a hospital for exhaustion right now had we tried to do that.  Thankfully, I was able to convince him that everything couldn't be done at once and be done well.  I proposed a 5 year plan outline.

I love outlines.  I would have never gotten through a single law school exam if it weren't for my darling outlines.  Despite the fact that I'm one of the most disorganized people I know, I love and am drawn to order.  And, if I don't write it down, it doesn't happen because I forget EVERYTHING.

Our outline for the farm and restaurant is broken down by year (this year being, of course, Year 1).  Since our overall plan is divided into fifths, I've decided that each year should also be broken into rough fifths for purpose of analysis and making sure we're sticking to our timeline.  I can't let us fall behind because if I do, Brendan is likely to jump ship on my paced plan and come home one day with a pig under one arm and a restaurant lease under the other.  And ten weeks is roughly 1/5 of the year so time to take stock of where we are.

How are we doing?  Pretty good, actually.  I made Year One fairly simple so as to not get overwhelmed.  Our plan for the farm for this year was to renovate the house, get honey bees and chickens, and to reclaim and plant the existing 20'x35' vegetable garden.  We've done all that and things seem to be going well - at least for today.

We built a chicken coop, raised chicks in the brooder, and moved them outside.  We're almost to the point of letting them out of the coop fence to free range in the pasture but first I want to get some portable fencing to help us direct them to the areas where we'd like for them to forage.

We built our bee hive and installed the package of bees.  I still feed them sugar syrup occasionally to allow them to build up their honey stores for winter but other than that, they seem to be doing their own thing fairly well without much intervention.

The vegetable garden was our biggest challenge.  It had clearly not been planted in quite some time and was completely overgrown with weeds.  Brendan had to spend several days just in that small space with a tiller trying to break up the compacted clay soil.  We added something close to 1000 pounds of compost and cow manure to enrich the soil and we started vegetables from seed on our porch.

The porch is not the best incubator for the seedlings and next year, we'll do things a bit differently.  I think having some grow lights to keep the seedlings warm and to extend their light exposure will help immensely.  Despite not having the best start, our seedlings have done very well for the most part and we have corn that is more than four feet tall already!

The garden has come a long way to get to this.  But, come Fall, we're going to try something new.  We're going to abandon row gardening and instead install a series of raised beds, probably about 16.  That will allow us to nearly triple our growing space without expanding the garden.  We'll be able to do crop rotation on a small scale and plan to leave about a quarter of the beds fallow, with a ground cover, each summer in order to let the soil renew itself.  I'm very excited about this experiment and will keep you posted.

I was going to write about what's going on with the restaurant plans but this post is getting long, so next week.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Things Remembered

Brendan and I celebrated our 10th anniversary this past Friday, on May 27.  I have to write the exact date in order to prove to Brendan that I actually do know it.  You see, we were married over Memorial Day weekend and while I can easily remember that much, the dates of the weekend keep changing on me every year and I can't be expected to keep that straight!  I argue that it's not remembering a particular date that is important, it's being able to recall all the wonderful things about him that got us started on this path and that have kept us steady.  And those things I remember.

I remember that Brendan and I met in the cheesiest, meat-market, dance club in Washington, DC.  It was called Crush and if you were over the age of 22 you really had no business being there.  At 26, I was clearly one of the oldest people in the place.  I had gone out with some friends for a happy hour after work on Friday night and one of the group suggested we go dancing.  Meanwhile, Brendan, who was 24 and also too old to be in the club, had agreed to be wingman for a friend who was supposed to meet a girl there.  Neither of us had ever been to Crush before, nor did we ever go again.  I went to the club hoping to find a guy who would buy my drinks.  Brendan was that guy and he's been buying my drinks ever since.  

I remember that we had only been dating about 4 months when it became clear our relationship was really serious.  We were driving through D.C. one Sunday afternoon and for reasons I cannot recall, were talking about children.  I said that I wanted to have several children and that I would likely want to have them very soon after getting married because I was already 27 and didn't want to wait.  He said he'd never given it much thought.  I asked him if what I had said was an issue for him and he said "no, it just gives me a better idea of how my life is going to go."  We were engaged five months later.

I remember when he used to work six days a week, sixteen hours a day.  He would leave home at 7:30 in the morning and get home after 11:30 pm (on a good night).  And, when our first child was born and she was fussy, he would load her up in the car at midnight and drive laps around the Washington, DC beltway so that she (and by extension, I) could sleep.  To this day he still gets up every time one of the children needs something in the middle of the night.

I remember how he was strong for me, and held me while I cried after two miscarriages in five months.

I remember that he has allowed me to have cats in the house, despite the fact that he's allergic to cats.  He even loves the stupid cat.

I remember that he created an in home breakfast restaurant, Cafe Ooh La La, for the kids.  I remember that he has carried all three children at the same time - one in each arm and one sitting on his shoulders when they were tired.  He still does this now, even though they are a combined weight of more than 150lbs.  I remember that he has given up countless chances to play golf or watch sports in favor of hanging out with his children.

And, I remember that he has told me every day how much he loves me.  He's never missed a day.

View into the Fearrington House White Garden --
 this garden was the view from our room
Ten years is a milestone worth celebrating.  Thanks to my parents generously offering to watch all three children and the dog, and thanks to Brendan's father for the generous gift of a night away, we were able to spend some quality time together at the Fearrington House Inn.  We were spoiled rotten - champagne and chocolate truffles waiting in our gorgeous suite; formal afternoon tea; four course dinner in the restaurant; and fabulous breakfast.

        Gorgeous suite at Fearrington

I am fully aware that I am the luckiest woman in the world.  Happy Anniversary, Brendan - I love you.

Belted Galloway at Fearrington