Cory Burke doesn't make it to GrowFood Carolina too often these days. He's a pretty busy guy. His new Asian fusion restaurant, the Green Door, is so swamped that he treats any opportunity to run his Roti Rolls food truck like a vacation — and there isn't a lot of time left to go to Morrison Drive and pick out produce. Fortunately, GrowFood makes shopping easy for chefs like Burke. The local food hub sends out e-mail lists of what they have available to their customers, and then they'll deliver orders right to a restaurant's door, regardless of its color.
When Burke does get a chance to stop by GrowFood's warehouse, he can get in and out of the cooler fairly quickly, like he does one afternoon in March. The winter temperatures have clung to the month like ice to a windshield, so the fridge is barer now than it will be in the lush months to come. It's never completely empty though; by offering shelf-stable items like rice and pecans and year-round crops like hydro bibb lettuce, GrowFood can always provide some products to its customers.
Burke quickly decides on rutabaga, turnips, collards, carrots, Russian red kale, and some of the hydro bibb, stacking up boxes for a GrowFood employee to portion out Burke's take.
All the while, the wheels are turning fast in the chef's head. The Green Door's nightly specials are written partly through pre-planning and partly through improvisation based on whatever produce Burke can get from GrowFood and his other suppliers that day. "I come in open minded," he says. "I take whatever looks good and go from there. That develops the menu for a week." Burke guesses he'll use the kale for a twist on a caesar salad, wrap up pork belly in the bibb lettuce, and curry the turnips, carrots, and rutabaga.
"My goal is to take these vegetables and put our spin on them, but at the same time keep the quality so that people can taste the actual vegetables," he says. "That's always the goal, is to somehow deliver a lot of flavor but not kill the actual ingredient that you're getting from the farmer." In the end, it comes down to balance. Some of the vegetables may lose their earthy tones when curried or kimchied, but Burke garnishes with local arugula and kale to bring that dimension back to his dishes.
Burke also works directly with plenty of local farmers — Dirthugger, Spade and Clover, Rebellion — but GrowFood makes balancing three businesses a lot easier. If Burke needs 20 cases of veggies before he heads off to Bonnaroo in the Roti Rolls truck, he knows he can count on GrowFood. "I can call them at 12 and they'll be there at 3 p.m. the same day," he says. "[GrowFood employees] will text me every other day and say hey, this is new, it's not on our list." And they'll sell him produce that's just starting to go, which he can use for his gallons and gallons of kimchi.
Even if trips to the warehouse are rare for him these days, Burke has been shopping at GrowFood since it first opened — in fact, he was there on its second day of operation. It's not unusual for faithful customers to opt for deliveries, according to General Manager Sara Clow. She estimates that only about 10 percent of the local chefs who use GrowFood actually come into the space, although some like to visit and shop and get their produce delivered later.
Clow was just in the Green Door earlier in the day for lunch, and GrowFood highlighted Burke's kimchi at its 2013 Charleston Wine + Food Festival table. "To have a chef like Cory, who's so locally focused, to be able to open a bricks and mortar, it does nothing but help," Clow says. "It also helps the consumers in Charleston, because I think the Green Door hits a perfect demographic. All the chefs we work with are incredible, but a lot of the restaurants that we work with are higher end ... He's only using local products, and it's not going to be a $30 lunch, which is awesome."
A week later, the carrots Burke picked up at GrowFood have been pickled at the Green Door. So have the turnips. The rutabaga has made its way into the curry, and the Russian red kale sits in a container, waiting to be used as a garnish. And just today, GrowFood delivered baby tatsoi and some beautiful heads of bok choy, which will get sautéed with a fish vinaigrette or turned into kimchi.
Actually, Burke will turn pretty much anything he gets into kimchi. For such a small kitchen, there's an inordinate amount of fermented veggies here waiting to trim burgers and Buddha Bowls and basically everything else on the Green Door menu. There are plans to can the stuff and get it on the shelves at local grocery stores too. And now Burke's even fermenting kimchi in tequila, using a local white-pink hybrid grapefruit he gets from GrowFood, for a future cocktail menu.
You'll also find local ground water buffalo and a Ziploc bag of fish hearts from Mark Marhefka in Burke's kitchen. The Green Door's menu doesn't name drop every single area farmer Burke uses (a colorful chalkboard does that for him), but that doesn't mean customers aren't eating local in every spicy, vinegary bite.
"Honestly, it's how I grew up in New Hampshire," Burke says of his reasons for focusing on local. There, everyone had gardens and grew their own food. It wasn't a trend — it was how they lived. Working at a restaurant in Vermont that showcased local products also had an impact on Burke. When it came time to go out on his own, it made sense to make such an emphasis on local, but it was just as important to keep the price points low.
"We want to show people that it's affordable and that you should be able to buy local. It shouldn't just be for a certain group of people," Burke says. "And honestly, it just tastes better. You have to try a lot harder if you're not working with good ingredients."