Sustainability Award: The Herbfarm's Carrie Van Dyck and Ron Zimmerman

It all started with Ron Zimmerman's mother rolling a cart loaded with some extra chives out to the side of the road to try to sell them to passersby to make a few bucks to buy...more herbs. This was in 1974, on a rural stretch of acreage outside of Fall City, and The Herbfarm was really just that: an herb farm, started by Bill and Lola Zimmerman with a couple of greenhouses and a nursery. By the mid-'80s, The Herbfarm had expanded greatly, with several hundred varieties of plants and a small retail operation selling seeds and seedlings. In 1986, Bill and Lola's son, Ron, and his new bride, Carrie Van Dyck, joined the operation, adding books and herbal products to the mix long before such things became the massive business they are today. They also turned a garage on the property into a restaurant—of sorts. Ron Zimmerman was the cook. Van Dyck was the host. And the idea was simple: to offer educational lunches and tours of the gardens to anyone interested in the growing, harvesting, and use (culinary or otherwise) of local herbs and plants. "The purpose of the lunches was to sell more herb plants," says Van Dyck. "They were really more promotional than anything." But within two weeks of the first lunch, The Herbfarm received a four-star review in the local paper (the now-defunct Bellevue Journal-American). After that, the people never stopped coming. In 1988, Zimmerman and Van Dyck started a dinner series, with the first meals held at Ballard's Le Gourmand, the Sooke Harbour House (near Victoria, B.C.), and on the grounds of The Herbfarm. These dinners led to more dinners, and eventually to the decision to stop serving lunch altogether. In 1996, the kitchen and dining room were rebuilt. And in 1997, it burned to the ground. Rather than give up, Zimmerman and Van Dyck soldiered on. They put up a tent and had their dinners there. For two years they worked out of temporary quarters at the Hedges Cellars winery in Issaquah. And then in 2001, they opened the new Herbfarm in Woodinville, 20 miles away from the original. Through all this, The Herbfarm's basic mission has been the same: to educate, to preserve, and to feed people well from the bounty of the Pacific Northwest. The dinners have evolved over the years into themed events, celebrating everything from individual ingredients (like basil or slugs) to trees (with every course made from or inspired by the trees surrounding the farm) to the incredible diversity of ingredients available in the area. In August 2009, The Herbfarm offered its first "100 Mile Dinner," in which nothing—not even the salt, made by hand in the kitchen—came from more than 100 miles away from the dining room in which it was served. The menu included Puget Sound mussels with sweet basil; savory dill and yogurt panna cotta; cherries picked from their own trees; honey from their own hives; salmon wrapped in prosciutto from their own pigs; August smelt with eggs from their own chickens; and potatoes that'd just been dug up that morning before service. This single dinner was such a success that it came to define the modern vision of The Herbfarm as "a restaurant of the moment rather than one of the greatest hits," according to Van Dyck. "You can come to the same menu theme several years in a row now, and each course will be different." For decades, The Herbfarm has been living proof that there are better, more local, more sustainable ways to look at the business of cooking dinner. With their weekly meals, their microbrewery festivals, Northwest wine festivals, slug festivals, tree dinners, and countless educational offerings, The Herbfarm is less a simple restaurant than an example of how commitments to locality, seasonality, and the farm-to-table spirit can be brought together in glorification of the ingredients we, as eaters, can sometimes take for granted. The idea that a roadside cart full of chives could evolve into what The Herbfarm is today? That is the very nature of sustainability in action.

 
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