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Meet a Forager: Avia Hawksworth, Farmstead Restaurant in Napa Valley

"It's so much more than just finding ingredients. It's educating yourself about where they're coming from and how they're being dealt with."

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Avia Hawksworth and her favorite chicken, Ruby. [Photographs courtesy of Avia Hawkswoth and Farmstead Restaurant]

This week we bring you something a little bit different from our typical Meet Your Farmers profiles. Avia Hawksworth isn't a farmer. She's the owner of Homage Vineyard in Napa, but we were mostly interested in her other position, as forager for the newly-opened Farmstead Restaurant in St. Helena, California.

In that capacity, Hawksworth works to find the best produce, meat, and fish within a 150-mile radius to stock the Farmstead's pantry. That may not sound like such a tall order when the center of that circle happens to be the heart of Napa Valley, but it turns out that Hawksworth is more than just the link between farm and table for Farmstead.

A culinary school graduate, vineyard owner, and former butcher, Hawksworth's many hats include a chef's toque, a sunhat, and, well whatever kind of hat a butcher wears. She recently took time out from her varied duties at Farmstead to speak with us about her work.

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Farmstead Restaurant's dining room.

So what do you do for Farmstead? I source all of the ingredients for the restaurant. They have all their own cattle, sheep, and chickens, and they have their own production garden, have orchards and all of that. So it's a very esoteric title—I deal with a lot of different things. I help oversee the slaughterhouse and the grassfed cattle, and also the production garden. I'm sort of a liaison between the different areas of the farm to the restaurant.

How much are you getting from the restaurants farm? We only have a five-acre farm, which is not anywhere near large enough to support the restaurant, but I'm in Napa Valley so I can easily stay within 150 miles.

It sounds like you do much more than just source ingredients...I think with my job, like many jobs these days, you wear a lot of hats. On one hand I provide the chef the most current information as to what's available, but I also ensure things are being done properly with the cattle, setting their feeding schedules and making sure they are treated humanely. Also, having my hand in the earth, where our gardens are concerned. So one aspect of the job is sourcing ingredients but the other thing is making sure there is integrity involved as well, which the chef wouldn't have enough time to do.

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Napa Valley fruit and veg sourced by Avia Hawksworth.

How does the back and forth work between you and the chef? I bring the ingredients to him, then we usually have a brainstorming session. I have another name for the position: culinary opportunist. I do what I call "polite mugging." There are many people around that have beautiful gardens full of citrus, or artichokes or anything like that, and I get calls that they want to utilize it in the restaurant. I just go down to them and fill up a basket and bring it back. Sometimes that will define a menu option for a week or two, depending on the crop.

How unique is your position, and do you think it's important? Chez Panisse is the founder of the position, in the 1970s. That was the true forager position where they actually sent these guys out to find mushrooms and edible greens in the countryside. But they wanted someone to do that full-time with the knowledge and the passion to seek out ingredients so the chef could focus on what he needed to do, but it's so much more than just finding ingredients. It's educating yourself about where they're coming from and how they're being dealt with.

What is the biggest advantage for a restaurant to have someone in your position? I think its personal relationships, first and foremost. You really get to understand the product and the people behind it.

About the interviewer: Carson Poole calls the Finger Lakes home but is living in New York City trying hard to maintain his farm boy credibility. His first job, at age 10, was in roadside corn sales. He is known to enjoy fresh local food and handcrafted spirits and liqueurs.

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