423 W. Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
I think one thing that restaurants can be really useful at is helping farmers create markets for things that otherwise they are not selling. – Andrea Reusing
It’s pretty interesting how things work here, because really the amount of food that we do local now, it’s impressive. – Miguel Torres
Chapel Hill’s Lantern Restaurant has received local and national acclaim since it opened in early 2002. Just a few blocks west of UNC’s campus and one mile east of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, chef-owner Andrea Reusing and her team—including chef de cuisine Miguel Torres—fuse North Carolina ingredients with Asian flavors and techniques. Popular menu items include dumplings of local pork, fried whole fish from North Carolina waters, and tempura-fried okra served with Indian-style chutney. Lantern’s cocktail menu changes frequently, making use of fresh fruits and herbs from nearby farmers. And pastry chef Monica Segovia Welsh dreams up inventive desserts that reflect the seasons and use either fresh or house-preserved fruits, as well as nuts, herbs, dairy products, and heirloom grains that are sourced locally and regionally. Reusing and Torres are fixtures at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, shopping weekly and conducting demonstrations for marketgoers at least once per season. Segovia Welsh and her husband, Rob, are also vendors at the Market, selling their Chicken Bridge Bakery bread. Reusing estimates that Lantern sources from forty to fifty local farmers and producers, and many of those relationships began at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
[Editor’s note: Monica Segovia Welsh joined the interview briefly toward the end; you can read what she had to say in the complete transcript.]
Subjects: Andrea Reusing and Miguel Torres, Lantern Restaurant
Date: September 7, 2011 2011
Location: Lantern Restaurant, Chapel Hill, NC
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Camp Arnold
Sara Camp Arnold: So this is Sara Arnold for the Southern Foodways Alliance on September 7, 2011, and I am interviewing Andrea Reusing and Miguel Torres at Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill. So if you can introduce yourselves please?
Andrea Reusing: Andrea Reusing, Lantern Restaurant, Chapel Hill.
Miguel Torres: Miguel Torres, Lantern Restaurant, Chapel Hill.
And if you can tell me where and when you were born?
AR: I was born in Washington, D.C., in 1968.
MT: I was born in Celaya, [Guanajuato,] Mexico in 1980.
Let’s talk about Andrea first, when you started cooking.
AR: I started cooking when I was in college in New York City, line cooking in the East Village.
MT: I started helping my mother after school since I was like seven, eight. She’s in the food business, and she’s been since like 1985.
And how old were you when you moved to the United States?
MT: I was eighteen, just turned eighteen, and I started working in [a] restaurant right away.
And then Andrea, I know you were mostly living in New Jersey and New York, so can you talk about how you ended up in North Carolina?
AR: In North Carolina, I was dating someone and I decided to [Laughs] come down for the summer and live here, and then I ended up staying.
And then Miguel, growing up and working in your mom’s restaurant, or in the food that you ate at home, did you eat a lot of things from your region?
MT: Yes, I think what people try to do here—going back and go green and buy local food—it’s very common for us to see that where I come from. Because it’s a little farm close to my house, where—when you’re a child your mom says, “Can you go and buy a chicken?” You buy a live chicken. And you have to help your mother process it. And it’s a lot of farms, a lot of farms around. So it’s very, very common to do what you guys are trying to do here, of using—not pesticides and all that stuff. For us, it’s very common.
What are some of the crops that grow best in Celaya?
MT: Oh—it’s a long list. [Laughs] It’s a lot of stuff. It never gets really cold, so it’s just a long list. Like, I can think about avocados, lime, oranges, apples, it’s a lot of broccoli and cauliflower in there, watermelons, all kinds of melons; I can’t think of anything else.
MT: And a lot of the people grow stuff in their houses, too: chilies, and most of the people has like fruit trees, like limes, or a lot of people have avocados, pomegranates, peaches—it’s like a world of things. It’s like, no end.
I mean if you need a lime, you go to the backyard and get a lime. [Laughs] Or you know what I mean, like peaches and pomegranates is a big thing there; guavas—it’s a lot of stuff.
What kinds of stuff do you remember your mom making—that were maybe some of your favorites—with local foods?
MT: She used to make like fried taquitos with chicken in it. That was probably my favorite thing, but every day was a different thing for every meal, because that’s what she did for a living. And so she has to have something different in every meal, so every time, it would be something different. And never leftovers—never leftovers. [Laughs]
Let’s go maybe to when you started frequenting the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, Andrea?
AR: Well, when I first moved here—you know, I grew up going to the farmers’ market with my grandmother in Lancaster, [Pennsylvania,] the Central Market, which is the oldest continuously operating public market in the country. And I just went back there recently, and it’s totally thriving and totally amazing. And so kind of like farmers’ markets have always been like a warm, great place for me, you know, to go. So when I first moved here, that was kind of like one of the first things I did. And the [Carrboro] Market used to be in a different spot, as you know. So it was just kind of still there a little bit right when I first moved here, so I got to kind of see that crazy old structure and what that was and—. [To MT] Do you know where it used to be? It used to be in the parking lot that’s behind Acme and Tom Robinson’s.
MT: Oh, okay.
AR: And there was just kind of this like wooden structure around it that was really rickety and amazing.
So when it first moved I remember thinking kind of like, “Wow; you know, it feels slicker and bigger and fancier and the rain is not coming down on your head, and—” But obviously like so many more farmers could then be there and be under cover. So that was when I first started going, when I first moved here.
I know you’ve gotten some farmers to grow specifically produce for Lantern that’s more Asian in style and provenance. Can we talk about that a little bit?
AR: Sure, yeah. We often adapt things that people are growing that you think of as a Southern ingredient, but we put it into an Asian context here. So we use a ton of things that, you know, you’d think of as being very Southern, but okra is just as much in Indian recipes as it is in Southern recipes. And sweet potatoes are used obviously in a lot of Asian recipes, including Japanese recipes.
So a couple things that we’ve had people grow for us are shishito peppers, which is a Japanese pepper, different kinds of Asian greens, different kinds of herbs, different kinds of chilies, different kinds of specifically Asian soybean varieties.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of approaching a farmer and asking them if they’d be interested?
AR: Well, we usually don’t have to approach them, because they’re usually sitting here or standing someplace [Laughs] or talking on the phone. So it’s usually people who want to kind of grow more things for us, want to sell us more things, but sometimes it’s just somebody who wants to try something. Sometimes it’s somebody who wants to get their foot in the door in restaurants, and so they’re interested in diversifying what their crops are. There can be a number of different reasons why somebody would be willing to do it. Sometimes we’re like, “Oh, this is a weird thing; it’s perfect for this person because they like growing weird things and they don’t mind if there’s a low yield or if it doesn’t work out the first couple years.” So all different ways.
Are there any things that you’ve tried to grow that you wish you could have locally that don’t really work in this soil?
AR: I wish I had an avocado tree in our backyard. [Laughs]
Can you tell me a little bit about your shopping at the Market?
MT: Well, it’s like a social hour for me [Laughs]. I really like everybody at the Market and they’re really easy going people, and I really enjoy it. It’s really nice.
Do you usually go on Wednesday or Saturday?
MT: Usually both days, but now I think we’re going to stop doing Saturday just because a lot of people deliver stuff here and since we buy a lot of stuff, big amounts, it’s easy for them to bring it here, too.
Uh-hmm; so today is Wednesday. Let’s say if you were going to go to the Market today, who might you visit and what might you buy?
MT: Well, I usually check the refrigerator the day before and see what I need, and sometimes I call people—farmers—so they can bring the stuff and have it ready for me.
AR: I think the shopping idea is a little bit of a myth in terms of restaurant use. Not that you’re saying that, but I think yeah; there’s a little shopping involved, but it’s really more—you have to know kind of like—
You’re picking up.
AR: You’re picking up, because when it’s, you know, thirty or forty pounds from each farmer, it’s hard to shop that—just the time that it takes by the time you got out of there.
MT: You know, I mean really we can’t go and say, “Can I get forty pounds of tomatoes?” And they’re like, “Ah, that’s all I brought.” And sometimes you tell them, “Can I buy this?” You have to ask them like that: “Can I buy this?”
AR: Because they might not want to have nothing on their table and have to stand there still for two hours [Laughs] saying they’re out of everything.
So they mostly deliver to you now?
AR: It’s a combination.
Well, maybe someone like a Ken Dawson or a Bill Dow who has been doing it since, you know, the dark ages of the Market, what do you think has maybe made them so successful for so long, in your opinion?
AR: Alex Hitt, Betsy Hitt, you know, Kathy [Jones] and Mike [Perry, of Perry-winkle Farm] are other people that I would say like have this very long view. And I think the thing that those people share is what they’re doing makes them happy and that they’re not motivated by money and they took a really long view a long time ago. And they’re all mentors to a lot of other people. I’m sure I’m leaving a couple people out, if not more than a couple, but they represent kind of the core people that started the Market and grew the Market, and they didn’t grow it because it would be good for them. They grew it because it would be good for the community, and they grew it because it’s what they love to do. And how many farmers who now sell there were mentored by them, I mean, it’s countless. So I guess that’s why they’re successful is they took a really holistic approach to what they do.
And can you talk a little bit about what you get from each farmer in season?
AR: Do you want me to go through like a total list of stuff, or do you want specific people?
Because we buy from probably forty or fifty different farmers.
MT: Yeah, it’s a very, very long list.
So maybe just a few.
AR: Chapel Hill Creamery is doing a project that they are feeding all of their whey from their cheese-making and byproduct of cheese-making to their pigs, and so we’re getting hogs from them. We also get the cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery. We get paneer, which is an Indian cheese, and they make the cheese from milk from their Jersey cows. They’re pasture-raised, about nine months a year, and it’s a closed herd, which means, you know, they don’t bring cows in from outside at all. And they have about thirty dairy cows on about seventy acres and they’re farmers and they’re artisan cheese makers, and it’s an incredibly challenging thing that they do. And so that’s Chapel Hill Creamery.
Can you tell a difference in the taste of the pork when they’re eating whey?
MT: After many years of doing this, you can tell the difference. It’s really good; it’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty amazing.
So you’re taking these familiar ingredients at Lantern, but interpreting them through Asian techniques and flavors. And maybe what made you want to do that?
AR: When we first opened, we were just trying to, like, get food on the table. That was really the objective. And so wherever it came, from it didn’t matter, because it’s just a struggle to even just kind of move food through the pipeline of the kitchen and get it out to the diners is like the real challenge.
So I think maybe we didn’t even have tomatoes on the menu here until two years—three years after we opened?
MT: By two years, because I remember when I started working here as a prep, I remember getting like so many strawberries from the Farmers’ Market already, and like blueberries and other stuff.
AR: It’s interesting, I think, to think about like what was not local and what was local at the very beginning and how it was a real evolution. Because I think there’s this feeling, sometimes people come into a restaurant that serves a lot of local and they think everything is organic and everything is local. And you know, obviously that’s not the case—ever in the beginning of a restaurant, generally, and also just restaurants in general. You know, there’s a lot of practical considerations.
So I guess we had no local meat—oh, no, chicken was North Carolina, but it was confinement. There was no pork available, really, at that time from farms, so our pork was from Niman Ranch. Our beef was all commodity beef. Our eggs were local, but they were from a confinement operation that’s local. Our milk has always been Maple View, [which is] not grass-fed.
And then what was the first big change that you remember?
MT: I think we started getting peppers, because Bill Dow was one of the first ones to start coming here, I remember.
And then Miguel, were you familiar with Asian flavors and techniques when you started here?
MT: No. I had no idea. It was a new world. To see all these bottles and all these ingredients, I had no idea. And everybody seems to be very familiar with it, and I was like, “What is Shaoxing wine? What is rice wine? What is this?” It took me a little short time to learn it, because they have a really good system then, where there are recipes so you would not get lost. But it was a totally new thing.
Then I’ve also heard that you sometimes make Mexican food for the staff meal.
MT: Yes, well we are [Laughs] a big group of people in the kitchen.
AR: The rarity is when it’s not Mexican. [Laughs]
MT: Yes; yes. Yeah, we cook mostly every day, but now everybody cooks in the kitchen. It used to be that only two or three people, and one of those people was me cooking, but now it’s like everybody. I think they’re not scared to cook for everybody anymore, and they have their own dishes they want to try. Because we have different parts of the country—from Mexico—so they have their own recipes and their own ideas.
Do you have a favorite thing to make?
MT: Well we made the carnitas here—not as often anymore, but yeah. We cook pork a lot here.
And you had your carnitas recipe in the Southern Foodways [Alliance Community] Cookbook.
MT: Yes; yes.
MT: It’s pretty interesting how things work here, because really the amount of food that we do local now, it’s impressive.
It’s really incredible.
MT: It is impressive. If you go in the walk-in, everywhere you look, the beef, the pork, all the veggies, chicken, it’s impressive. And sometimes it’s really hard, because you like all the farmers, and you want to buy from all of them, but it’s so hard to take a decision—what I can move in a week.
Yeah. And I’m sure they all want to sell to you.
MT: Yes; yes. They really, really like us. I think we try to be really nice to them. Because a lot of people, you know, like from restaurants they go to the Farmers’ Market and they say, “Oh, those cucumbers are no good. Wait; they don’t have this size,” and all those kinds of stuff. You got to understand they’re not going to be perfect.
Can you think of anything that you want to talk about that I have forgotten to ask you?
AR: I think your mom’s business is really interesting if you feel like talking about it.
MT: Well she’s been in the food business since 1985, 1986. She serves a lot of workers in the industrial area. And all day, since like lunch—and lunchtime in Mexico is at 10:00 in the morning—until like 8 o’clock when dinner is like 7:00, 6:00.
Is this out of your house?
MT: Yes, her house. And we just go to the market every day and buy stuff, and that’s what I used to do after school is go to the market and get stuff for her.
So has she built an extra dining room onto the house? Or it’s—?
MT: No, no, no; it’s like a small kitchen, and it has like a building, and it has like seats everywhere. It’s a very, very casual thing. But that people can afford, like not very expensive stuff.
So is farmers’ market food less expensive in Mexico?
MT: Everything is less expensive, yes. And it’s a very common thing.
So she can go get fresh things and have it not be very expensive?
MT: Yes, uh-hmm, like chickens.
AR: Describe the first time—what that was like when your mom sent you to the farm.
MT: Well I was like seven years old, and the farm is really close to my house, and we all—I mean all the kids in the neighborhood, it’s like a very common thing to do. Your mother says, “You go there—go and get a chicken,” and we kill it. The first time it was like, “You have to hold it and I’m going to cut the neck.” And I was like, “Ah, okay.” I didn't hold it strong enough, so the chicken go all over the place without the head. But after that I learned my lesson, and we did it again, and again, and again, and again.
So you’re seven or eight years old and your mom gives you a knife and says, “Go for it”?
MT: Yes. I mean, the worst part is cleaning the chicken and taking all the feathers and the other stuff, just—. I mean, it can’t get more local than that, I guess. [Laughs]
So we were going to talk a little bit about the economics of buying local and what that means for you at the restaurant and for the farmer.
AR: I think that one of the goals of us using local is to try to get as much money back to the farm, to various farms as possible, and to kind of keep in mind this idea that it’s not that helpful to buy something from a farmer that they can sell to someone retail for a lot more. And so what we’re always trying to do is ask people, “What do you have too much of? What are you not going to be able to sell today? What parts of the animal aren’t you able to make a profit on?” and try to absorb as much of that stuff as possible, while people are still kind of in a learning curve.
You know, pork belly used to be called “fresh bacon” here, because that’s the only way people could get people to buy it. And now it’s almost impossible for us to buy pork belly if we just went to the Farmers’ Market because it’s really in demand. Yeah, so I think one thing that restaurants can be really useful at is helping farmers create markets for things that otherwise they are not selling.
Often I think people are more willing to open their wallets in a dining room of a restaurant for an $11 cocktail or an expensive appetizer, but that same quality of food in a Farmers’ Market context might seem more expensive. You know, $6 for a dozen eggs can be shocking if you’re used to shopping in the grocery store. But when you see the quality of the egg and you know that like one egg per person on top of salad with some grain—or like on top of like some sautéed kale or in a bowl of soup with a couple vegetables can really be a whole meal with some Chicken Bridge Bakery bread—can really be a whole meal. And a meal is only maybe $2.50, $3 a person, it’s really not what we think of as being expensive. It’s just trying to kind of see those prices in a different way.
MT: It’s pretty cool, I guess, to try to use all the stuff that’s around. It’s difficult, too. It’s like, you know, it’s difficult for us to figure out what’s around because in spring, everything is ready. And it’s like a lot of stuff is ready. So it’s so hard to get everything here and try to sell it all at the same time.
AR: All at the same time—and part of the interesting thing about having relationships with so many farmers is people tend to have a lot of the same stuff at all the same time. And so the challenge to kind of try to spread out the buying to be able to maintain relationships with as many people as possible—maintain professional relationships.
Is there anything else that I’ve forgotten to ask you?
AR: Can’t think of anything.
MT: I don’t think so.
All right. Thank you so much.
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