Tara Derr Webb describes herself as an "artist, nomad, food monger, and emerging farmer." A recent transplant to Charleston, she is planning a new restaurant concept and retail space that will embody her philosophy on the role of food in the community. Derr Webb will also be the first tenant of Lindsay and Kate Nevin's 1600 Meeting Street, the "creative incubator" space located in the upper peninsula. As the development continues its long progress from blueprints to reality, Derr Webb and the Farmbar represent the metaphorical groundbreaking of the collaborative space and the first sign of the philosophy behind 1600 Meeting Street taking root.
Derr Webb has collected numerous experiences across the fashion, food, and photography industries, from window styling in New York to creating her own artistic works in San Francisco. Her career has been a nomadic pursuit of creativity. "I've always just kept running," says Derr Webb. "I think it comes from an anthropological curiosity for more meaning, which led to a bipolar life that worked jobs to make ends meet while pursuing other, creative explorations on my own."
Derr Webb admits she has not always been the most adventurous eater. On her website, Earth-to-Food, she recounts her culinary history and remembers a dinner in 1985 with her then-boyfriend-now-husband, Leighton, at the D.C. institution 1789. "I ordered a petit filet (butterflied, well-done), with a bordelaise sauce (way off to the side) and parsnip puree (substituted with potato gratin, because what in the hell is a parsnip), and gulped it down with a bottle of Chateau Meyney," writes Derr Webb. "Perhaps the savory, delicate, thoughtful food was wasted on me at that particular time in my life, but the experience was not. My culinary world exploded. A new mouth, a new desire, and an insatiable appetite to explore. "
She found her way into the food world of Napa Valley after attending the San Francisco Art Institute for photography. It was the 1990s, when people like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Towers were laying the groundwork for farm-to-table meals, seasonal menus, and conscientious eating. "At the time, these weren't even concepts really. These were just ideas coming from people who saw sense in simplicity," says Derr Webb.
She got her first taste of this world as a waitress under James Beard winner Reed Hearon at his Restaurant LuLu in San Francisco. "I didn't know how to 'fire' courses, open a bottle of champagne, or de-bone a fish tableside but somehow I was in," she writes. Derr Webb worked her way up to other positions at Hearon's restaurants like Rose Pistola and Rose's Cafe, and finally, she was recruited for a management position at Arnold Rossman's PlumpJack Cafe. Her work there transformed her approach to cooking and dining. She swore off a freezer and shifted her lifestyle to one where she shops daily for meals with the freshest ingredients, something she still does today. After a two-year stint in London, where she ate her way around the U.K., she and her husband returned to the Bay Area with renewed enthusiasm. Food consciousness was in full swing, prompting Derr Webb to delve deeper into the question of how food gets to the table.
Then, one day, Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life provided a new impetus. The book follows the transformation of a New York City writer who sheds her glamorous life in search of love and commitment on a farm. Inspired, Derr Webb joined the WWOOF network, a work exchange program linking volunteers with organic farmers, and found herself at Greendale Farm in Madison, Ga. Over a couple of weeks, she learned to milk cows, make cheese, and cultivate vegetables. Above all, she was introduced to the simplicity and hard work of farm life. "You think you're going to change the farm, but really the farm is what changes you," she remembers. At long last, she had cultivated a platform to pursue her new concept and finally put down roots. "I've got this heavy bag of big experiences that ultimately inform what I have wanted to do, whether that's interacting with wine makers in Napa or cheesemakers in Scotland," says Derr Webb. "When you hit 40, you realize you want to pick from what you've learned." With their family roots on the East Coast, Derr Webb and her husband moved to Charleston in 2010, settling on a four-acre farm in Awendaw and beginning their plans for a new restaurant concept.
The Farmbar will be a sustainable restaurant based out of Spartan Landcraft (a retro, "silver bullet" camper), which is currently being refitted with a small kitchen. She'll serve a simple, consistent 10-item menu, including a fried egg sandwich for breakfast, a roasted porchetta sandwich for lunch, and a sugar cookie with peach goat's milk for dessert. Derr Webb will use produce and milk from her four-acre farm in Awendaw, Deux Puces/Two Fleas Farm. Nestled in the Francis Marion National Forest, billowing old growth surrounds the field where Derr Webb's four goats graze. With the help of their first WWOOF volunteer, Derr Webb and her husband are preparing the plot for future growing. She also plans to use the farm as a place for the community to come together, whether to watch cinema, enjoy an oyster roast, or attend canning and jarring workshops. Most recently, Derr Webb hosted a dinner by community-centered Kinfolk magazine, where she cooked a meal for 31 people in her tiny farm kitchen and partnered with South Carolina farms and local restaurants like Two Boroughs Larder and Butcher & Bee for ingredients.
Just like Deux Puces, form follows function at the Farmbar and the atmosphere of the retail and restaurant space can change on a whim. "I want to nestle in the concept of architecture catering to spontaneity. We can play with the modifications and reinterpret it," says Derr Webb. "I look at it as an art installation. I use all my lenses — chef, artist, etc. — to edit and curate a space for free thinking and exchange."
Rotating throughout the year, the Farmbar will host pop-up events with local chefs, artisans, musicians, filmmakers, innovators, and what she calls "strange birds like us." Derr Webb wants to "discover what locals fancy, what they are curious about and adapt to the moment."
The complementary Farmbox is made from a shipping container and will serve as a retail space with a rotating stock of artisan goods like apparel, local foods, and books. Tables and chairs from designer Mark Sage of Restoration Hardware will be the bridge between the food bar and retail shop, creating a continuum from office to dining to shopping and anchoring 1600 Meeting.
To call the Farmbar a food truck, a snack bar, or even a restaurant misses the point. Instead, the Farmbar is a communal gathering place that happens to center on food. In that way, it's a restaurant in the purest sense: a place where people eat meals together. These ideas follow the goals of 1600 Meeting, where collaboration is a hallmark of the project's organization. The vision for 1600 Meeting has been defined as a "good idea center," a place to inspire, engage, and collaborate. Derr Webb wants to contribute an atmosphere at the Farmbar where people can sit back and have the freedom of mind to support local farmers and think about evolving life in Charleston.
And for that reason, 1600 Meeting's co-founder Kate Nevin thinks Derr Webb is a perfect fit. For one, the Farmbar will be adding a food element to the development, an essential component to the multifaceted, mixed-use building the Nevins hope for. "Right now there's no place to get coffee or a sandwich around 1600 Meeting so it's nice to have Tara and the Farmbar focused on bringing the community in and back there," says Nevin. "The main building is offices, but it's not just a place to have meetings. It's a place to linger, talk, and eat. The Farmbar will be a good gathering watering hole for that."
According to Nevin, the right people will find the 1600 Meeting project on their own. "I think people that understand and are energized by creative collaboration have sort of been drawn in. We just put the right story out there that they could attach to and they found us," says Nevin. So when Derr Webb first reached out to the Nevins, it was more like a conversation between long-time friends than a business deal.
"We just sort of clicked on so many levels," says Nevin. "Tara was still searching for a home for the Farmbar. Originally, she was thinking it would be more mobile, but when she learned about our mission and goal of a collaborative space, 1600 Meeting fit her and exactly what she was looking for in terms of really coming into the community."
With that, Nevin has recognized the opportunity in Derr Webb's presence in the Lowcountry. "She's bringing a lot of good ideas from across the country and the world. I think she's cherry-picked her favorite experiences from food, art, and people she has met along the way to curate a neat idea on how to incorporate that here," says Nevin. "What she's doing is unique to Charleston, and it wouldn't necessarily fit everywhere."
Derr Webb admits she chose Charleston for the Farmbar after identifying a rare opportunity in the city compared to other places she has lived. "The beauty of Charleston is that it really feels local and people are doing this as a lifestyle, not as a trend. It's palpable and infectious," she says. "There's a Southern sensibility in the rootedness in tradition here. People are accepting and share their experimentation. People are claiming a more authentic experience, and that happens here organically," she adds.
That said, she wants to tread lightly and "be innovative quietly," as she puts it. Derr Webb emphasizes the idea of complementing existing restaurants with similar philosophies, citing Two Boroughs Larder and Butcher & Bee as personal favorites and taking a page from their approach and style. Nevin agrees and suggests that this is part of the personality of the city that makes it so conducive to local businesses' success. "There's a brotherhood and sisterhood that knows a rising tide lifts all boats. Charleston stands apart in that it's so supportive and inherently collaborative. That adds to the authenticity and the incredible growth," notes Nevin. "It's simply that everyone wishes each other well and wants to see other businesses thrive, and to see the community thrive as a whole."
If this sounds like a hefty philosophical investment for your sandwich, Derr Webb assures us she is not trying to overcomplicate anything: she simply wants to connect food to thought. That's why she's not trying to get fancy with a lengthy menu with super-modern cuisine. "It's simple for simple's sake: That makes the difference between a designed space and a thoughtful one. It's just food, after all."
This fall, she raised $26,000 through Kickstarter and plans to launch Farmbar in March 2013.