President and First Lady Obama get a taste of WNC’s locally-grown food sceneWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
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Just a month ago, no one here would believe that the President and First Lady of the United States would one day be savoring smoked trout from Sunburst Farm in Canton while on vacation. Or munching on fresh lettuce directly delivered from Jolley Farms, also in Canton.
The small Western North Carolina town has officially connected with the White House, and in more ways than one.
Denny Trantham served Barack and Michelle Obama at The Grove Park Inn, where he works as executive chef. Trantham, too, hails from Canton. It’s where he grew up, and where he held his first job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant in the late ‘80s.
Trantham is the reason those local products showed up on the menu in the first place. As the visionary responsible for crafting Grove Park’s menus months in advance, he has always placed a special focus on utilizing local products no matter what changes are made to restaurant offerings.
It’s the relationships he’s built with farmers over the years that has made the resort’s local farm-to-table program a hit.
“I’ve known these people a long time,” said Trantham. “If I need trout, I know where to go. If I need peppers, I know where to go.”
Grove Park consistently incorporates farm offerings produced within a 100-mile radius in the menus of its multiple restaurants, using bacon from Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview or goat cheese from Three Graces Dairy in Madison County, for example.
When the program began three years ago, only a handful of farms participated. It was a trial-and-error process, and some were overwhelmed with the quantity Grove Park demanded every day.
Trantham must be selective about how much local produce is offered at each of the inn’s restaurants since it is not available on a large scale.
“If I’m feeding 1,200 and I gotta have salad greens, that’s a challenge,” said Trantham.
But local farms have adapted over the years, including Jolley Farms in Canton, which built its own greenhouse to use during winter months and continue supplying the resort with produce.
“It’s as close as you can get to year-round,” Trantham said.
Trantham’s enthusiasm for local produce existed long before it became a ubiquitous trend.
He learned all he knows from his mother and grandmother, who kept up gardens with green beans, corn, squash and zucchini. They also made their own jam, jellies, preserves, relishes, and pickled vegetables, making sure to never waste a thing.
“The funny part today is that everyone’s crazy about farm-to-table, but I think it’s something we did all along,” said Trantham, who believes the local food movement is more than a passing fad. “This isn’t a trend by definition. This is going to be a way of life.”
Southern Appalachian culinary traditions have been another mainstay at the Grove Park Inn since Trantham joined the staff nine years ago, and he intends to keep it that way.
That dedication in particular helped bring traditional Southern cooking to the Obamas.
Though President Obama stopped by at the historic inn while on the campaign trail, the latest visit was a whole different ballgame.
As Obama fans watched his every move, Trantham and fellow chefs were simultaneously subject to scrutiny from security each time they prepared the president’s meal.
A few changes to the Sunset Terrace restaurant menu were made, though Trantham is barred from discussing much about the meal, like what was exactly served or even who sat at the table with the Obamas.
Trantham said the hardworking kitchen staff was experiencing an “ounce” more of stress during Obama’s visit. They not only had to prepare an impeccable dinner for the president and first lady, but also a quality dining experience for 300 guests in the other dining room at the same time.
Ten chefs worked busily in the kitchen that night, while usually six suffice.
“We survived,” said Trantham. “I feel like we learned how to once again survive under pressure.”
Trantham introduced the menu to the Obamas, who tried a taste of ramps and were especially interested in learning more about Grove Park’s farm-to-table program.
“They enjoyed everything about their meal, and the president and first lady were gracious enough to meet each and every one of our chefs,” said Trantham, who characterized the Obamas as “down-to-earth” and “hospitable.”
Obama shook each chef’s hand, and announced that it was a perfect photo opportunity. “That was our moment in the spotlight,” said Trantham. “It was a great surprise for all of us, but it’s one that we’ll never forget.”
Since then, Trantham says the resort has received dozens of inquiries from those piqued by Obama’s stay there. Trantham by no means believes he’s reached a peak in his career by working as executive chef at the luxury resort, and now, serving the President.
“A lot of people say you’ve made it,” said Trantham. “In my mind, I’ve not made it. I’m just starting ...You gotta keep moving, you gotta keep growing, you gotta keep inventing, you gotta stay ahead of the curve, all the time.”