CHARLOTTE’S THRIVING FOOD SCENE IS ROOTED IN HEALTHY SOIL AND THOSE WHO TEND IT
In a pinch of soil, there are more than six billion living things. a calm Sammy Koenigsberg looks out the window of the coffee shop where we are meeting to ponder this fact, his blue-green eyes fixed on something far off in the distance. He cites a statistic by the European Union Joint Research Center that says almost one-third of all living organisms reside in the soil. More amazingly, he says, according to that statement a mere 1 percent of those organisms have been identified. The rest is a mystery.
For Koenigsberg, an architect turned farmer who left his sketches and draft table behind in search of health and divine purpose, it is in this medium that he has found the very stuff of life.
“Farmers are the husbandmen of those creatures,” says Koenigsberg. “We have this propensity to think we’re above it, but we’re really just part of it. It’s much bigger than us.”
Referred to by many as the “Godfather of the local food movement” in Charlotte, Koenigsberg and his wife, Melinda, built New Town Farms, an organic polyculture farm, on his family’s land in 1991.
“We approach farming with our beliefs about life,” says Koenigsberg, father of eight. “That’s really the purpose, it’s not separate from that.”
Indeed, that purpose has fertilized more than just the soil at New Town Farms. Koenigsberg grew up in Charlotte just twelve miles north of his fifty-acre farm in Waxhaw, North Carolina. He inherited the land from his father, it seems, at a turning point in his life. During architecture school, Koenigsberg fell ill and struggled for two long years battling untimely health issues for a young man his age. Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating conditions, he found he could no longer work the long hours at the drafting table. His physical pain became an impetus for change, although he would tell you that there are no coincidences.
Armed with knowledge of food issues impressed upon him by his naturopath uncle who introduced him to agricultural visionaries like Wendell Berry, Koenigsberg sought to explore food as medicine. Thus began a healing journey and lifelong love affair with the soil, which conjured a seismic and palpable passion that, some would say, served as the genesis of Charlotte’s abundant and accessible local food scene.
Of course, Koenigsberg would never cop to such a statement. His preference leans toward a more humble existence with a focus on faith and family. Long before we ever met in person, New Town Farms and Sammy’s name in particular would coalesce in the food spaces I occupied–out of the mouths of chefs, written on menus, served on a holiday table in the form of just-pulled carrots tossed lovingly with olive oil and sea salt.
A closer look at the tapestry of Charlotte’s local food community reveals a common thread, with produce from New Town Farms and its farmer woven tightly into the fabric.
A Market Is Born
For a snapshot of Charlotte’s culinary history, look no further than the charming town of Matthews, just southeast of the Queen City. Early Saturday mornings, when the rising sun paints the sky cotton candy, it is not uncommon to see Charlotte-area chefs wandering the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market among local residents, clipboards in hand, perusing the produce stalls for weekend service.
In 1991, when the market was established, it was a budding Koenigsberg who proposed the radical idea of a growers-only market. That is, a market where the vendors are not only present each market day, but they also must come from within fifty miles of the market square. Today, this hyperlocalism is the very signature of the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market.
For the last twenty-three years, Charlotteans and Matthews community residents have eagerly waited for the Saturday morning bell to ring, signifying the start of business in the market. The market space, adjacent to the old-timey Renfrow Hardware owned by David Blackley, is arguably the heartbeat of Main Street Matthews. The sloped grassy lot is a place where farmers and small businesses like The Secret Chocolatier have been incubated to self-sufficiency. The artisan chocolate shop began with a booth at the market and now boasts two brick-and-mortar locations in Charlotte.
This bustling market is also where chefs have been drawn like moths to a flame for fresh, local produce since the late nineties. Koenigsberg attributes this chef and farmer affinity to the “Alice Waters of Charlotte” Tim Groody, veteran chef and owner of Fork! in Davidson who was the first chef to frequent the market in 1997.
“He would come every Saturday at seven a.m.,” says Koenigsberg. “You could set your watch to it.”
In those early days, Koenigsberg claims Groody singlehandedly kept his business going. Any culinary veteran of Charlotte will attest that Groody is the chef who started the farm-to-table movement in the area. People say he was also the first to put a farmer’s name on a restaurant menu. The name on that menu? Sammy Koenigsberg of New Town Farms.
Prior to Groody, Koenigsberg tried selling to restaurants to no avail. After meeting the passionate chef, whom he says was “heart-driven,” he was compelled to try again and succeeded.
Restaurants and Relationships
Groody shared his local food connection with other up-and-coming chefs, including a young chef from Boston named Bruce Moffett who had recently opened a small forty-seat restaurant named Barrington’s.
Moffett, who was sure he’d be back in Boston within a year of moving to Charlotte, found a symbiotic relationship between farm and food when he met Koenigsberg.
“When I got here, I felt like a fish out of water,” says Moffett, who had never before worked with a farmer who delivered freshly picked produce to his restaurant door.
“Once I got into the local food community, I got excited. I got excited to be part of the South, excited to work with the seasons, excited to learn what to do with new vegetables. It made me feel like I was in the right place,” says Moffett.
Three restaurant concepts later, including the James Beard-semifinalist restaurant Good Food on Montford and his newest concept Stagioni, Moffett is a veteran fixture of the Charlotte food scene and considers Koenigsberg a friend and wise counsel more than anything else. The two travel together often, support each other, even ride bikes together.
“I think his produce and determination has influenced the Charlotte food scene like no one else,” says Moffett. “I get to support his family and he gets to support mine.”
This kind of genuine affection toward Koenigsberg is not specific to Moffett. It wells up time and again, interview after interview, with veteran chefs and newcomers.
“When you hear New Town Farms, chefs who are passionate about local—they stop, they look, and they listen,” says Joe Kindred, executive chef at Rooster’s Uptown.
Kindred, who has been working at Rooster’s for the last five years, brings up a familiar moniker when describing Koenigsberg.
“He’s the Godfather here in Charlotte,” says Kindred. “He’s been super instrumental in the farm-to-table movement.”
Ask Kindred about Sammy’s vegetables and he lights up like a man recalling a romantic encounter of his youth.
“Sammy’s arugula is the best I ever had,” he says wistfully.
His list of favorites from Koenigsberg is long—from an infamous tomato medley to “little gem” lettuce (praised for its incredible resilience to dressings) to his soft and tender turnips.
The more chefs I speak to, the more apparent it is that Charlotte’s chef-driven restaurants are inherently farmer driven: “Sammy’s vegetables,” a chef’s muse.
Chef Paul Verica, owner of the newly opened restaurant Heritage in Waxhaw, waxes poetic about New Town Farms carrots, arugula, and turnips. Luca Annunziata, executive chef at Passion8 Bistro, is said to have awoken Koenigsberg to knock the ice off the produce he wanted for restaurant service. Chef Joe Bonaparte, local foods advocate and former educator at the Art Institute of Charlotte, says, “His food makes you feel alive!”
The words of praise are so forthcoming and sensational that it is like the extravagant claims on a circus poster, almost too good to be true. But then, a visit to the farm reveals the validity of these statements and the authenticity of Koenigsberg’s heart.
Life on the Farm
Turning down the gravel driveway lined with stately mature trees (planted decades ago by Koenigsberg and his father), a pastoral sprawl gives way to a lake on the left, flanked by a wide strip of open pasture and a barn adjacent to the big white farm house where Sammy, his wife, and eight children now reside. I am greeted by Koenigsberg and his gargantuan and friendly Dogue de Bordeaux (think Hooch from Turner & Hooch) named Wilbur.
We sit down to a cup of tea at his dining room table and he shares his passion for fresh, flavorful, nutritious food and discusses the brokenness of our current food system.
“We’re all very disconnected from our food,” says Koenigsberg. “Food is a blessing and we have so diminished that blessing, we have so disconnected ourselves from the work of it and demeaned it.”
For Koenigsberg, his life’s mission hinges on providing the healthiest, most nutritious food to his family in a way that seeks to work with the soil and not against it. As we stroll the grounds of New Town Farm, slowly and with purpose, I see a man who treasures the ground upon which he walks.
Famed nineteenth-century botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey once said, “A farmer is the dispenser of the mysteries of God.” When Koenigsberg reaches his hand into the soil, it is more than just an agricultural act. He is connecting with something bottomless and unseen. I think I now understand where he was looking when he stared out of the coffee shop window that day.
Mentioned in this post: