By Nancy Gaines
Even the bug spray was color-coordinated for the dinner at Frank McClelland's Essex farm last Thursday as the chef of Boston's world-renowned L'Espalier restaurant, and his wife, Heather, hosted about 20 guests in their backyard.
"I don't know whether to stay in shorts or put on a suit or chef's coat," said McClelland, tending the grill, as guests from Cape Ann and Boston filtered in for the $175 per person (plus tax and tip) four-course, farm-to-table spread.
No matter. At this, the inaugural dinner that will become a monthly twilight summer fest on the McClellands' 13-acre Apple Street Farm, the food and the backdrop were the shining stars.
Shortly after McClelland bought the antique farmhouse three years ago, he re-tilled some of the fields, and relaunched what had been a working farm as far back as 1635 under the Perkins family, if a sign in the barn is to be believed.
The quest for organic food on restaurant tables as well as at home — the locavore trend — was heating up. McClelland had fallen in love with the heartland approach during his youth, in thrall to his grandfather's farm in New Hampshire.
In Essex, McClelland hired a farm manager, the aptly named Elizabeth Green, and with the help of three more full-time workers, harvested Apple Street's first bounty in 2009.
The farm now provides half of the produce for McClelland's four restaurants in Boston, and home (including four kids, one on the way), as well as shares its crops with 50 local families, who buy into a weekly portion of the produce. It also sells to Gloucester's Alchemy Restaurant, and at the Cape Ann Farmers Market.
"Maybe I'm a little ahead of the curve," said McClelland, 54, "but I think linking urban agriculture to restaurants is the next big thing." Indeed, a Boston-based company, City Growers, is now cultivating crops and promoting sales of inner-city grown goods to places such as Cambridge's lauded Rendezvous, owned by chef Steve Johnson, who once labored at Lobster Cove.
"I'm just being selfish," said McClelland, "because I love to do this. Why not harvest today and cook immediately and eat outside tonight? It's almost spiritual." McClelland imports his ultra-professional bar, kitchen and server staff for the 30 dinners during June to October. It's costly ("I don't make anything on it"), but "it's bringing L'Espalier to Cape Ann," he said.
L'Espalier — the term for a flat trellis against which fruit trees grow up a wall — has been at the peak of Boston restaurants for just about as long as it's existed, 33 years. It is consistently the Zagat Survey's top-rated dining spot in Boston and is the only independent restaurant in New England to receive the AAA Five Diamond Award for the last nine years.
McClelland cooked there in the early 1980s, and bought L'Espalier in 1988. Long treasured at its Back Bay townhouse location, the restaurant moved to the luxe Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Boylston Street when it opened in 2008.
In 2000, McClelland opened on Boston's waterfront Sel de la Terre (literally, salt of the earth), a less fancy French restaurant, of which there are now three. They are tended by Geoff Gardner, McClelland's former sous chef, now partner, who co-hosts the Apple Street Farm dinners.
Organic produce, protein and eggs fresh from the farm are showcased in the dinners at the farm — hosted over three consecutive nights for about 26 guests each. The food is served under a tent in the sage green fields. The candlelit tablescape was crisp white and kaffir-lime green, with even the tips of the presciently placed organic bug spray lime-green hued.
Last week's fare featured, in various dishes, Maine lobster and beef sirloin, New Hampshire trout, and Apple Street beets, strawberries, spinach, fiddleheads, asparagus, anise hyssop, rhubarb and basil, picked daily.
Correspondent Nancy Gaines, a Gloucester resident, is the founding editor of the Boston Business Journal.