Boston chef Ana Sortun and her husband, Chris Kurth, harvest some Swiss chard at his CSA vegetable farm in Sudbury, Massachusetts.Photo Credit : Christopher Churchill
Few couples have careers as sublimely synchronized as Ana Sortun and Chris Kurth. She’s a chef; he’s a farmer. They live just a stone’s throw from Siena Farms, Kurth’s vegetable-growing operation in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Those veggies anchor the menus of Sortun’s Boston-area restaurants Oleana, Sofra, and Sarma. Her work, in turn, influences the 100-plus varieties of vegetables grown at Siena.
Over the past year, as the pandemic disrupted national food-supply chains and the entire restaurant industry, their mutual cooperation proved even more critical. Kurth saw local subscriptions quadruple for his seasonal CSA program. And as winter weather shut down outdoor dining and threatened Sortun’s businesses, her team came up with an idea: Why not sell prepared food the way Kurth sells raw ingredients? Thus the community-supported restaurant, or CSR, model was born. Customers of Oleana and Sofra could pay for weekly subscriptions and receive a generous box of heat-and-eat foods. The 175 shares sold out almost instantly, and at press time the wait list numbered 500 hopefuls. We explore Sortun and Kurth’s unique partnership in episode 2 of the new season of Weekends with Yankee. —Amy Traverso
Q. So how did a chef and a farmer meet and fall in love?
Ana Sortun:Chris was introduced to me when he was working at the Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts. They were looking for restaurants that would buy some of their vegetables, and Chris walked in one day with a bunch of spinach at a really, really bad time—right before [restaurant] “show time,” at 5 o’clock. But I’ve always had a soft spot for farmers, so I stopped what I was doing and looked at his spinach. It didn’t take long after that.
Q. How did the pandemic change your businesses?
Chris Kurth:Pre-2020, about 40 percent of our veggies went to retail, 40 percent to our CSA, and 20 percent to restaurants. Now, 75 percent of our crop goes out to our CSA subscribers. One of our best experiences of the past year was feeling so appreciated by our customers. People cared really deeply about what was happening to farms and restaurants and other local businesses. I’m confident that a general concern for our neighbors will be one of the long-term lessons of this pandemic. I’m hoping it is.
Q. How did you come up with the CSR model?
Sortun:It started with Maura Kilpatrick, my business partner at Sofra, trying to get some pies attached to the distribution system of the Siena Farms “Gobble Box,” which is this enormous box of produce you can order with everything you’d need for Thanksgiving. As they worked on that, Chris and Rachel
Orchard, his CSA manager, thought, Wow, we could really help the restaurants out. We live and breathe the CSA model through Siena Farms, so it wasn’t a stretch. The challenge was developing a production system, but we handed distribution over to the farm. It brought us a lot of stability and we didn’t have to lay anybody off. It also gave us a sense of purpose. It demanded good, creative energy. Without it, I would’ve been laser-focused on how much money we were losing and all the negatives that every restaurant was experiencing in the last few months.
Q. Are you optimistic about the future of food?
Kurth:I think it’s going to be hard for anyone to take anything for granted after this crazy year, including understanding the need to shorten the supply chains for food. We hope the “Buy Local” campaign has a lot more importance now for all of us.
Sortun:On the restaurant side, I think that takeout is going to be a really bad word soon. A lot of fine-dining restaurants did takeout because they had to, but food just doesn’t taste as good. It’s not the same experience. When all this is over, people are going to be out again. Maybe food will be more casual for a while. But I also think that people want food that they’re not making at home. I look at restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York or Alinea in Chicago, and those are places where magic happens. I think people need that magic more than they ever have.
Season 5 of Weekends with Yankee, which includes a visit with Ana Sortun and Chris Kurth at Siena Farms, is now airing on public television stations nationwide. To find your local listings—plus recipes and highlights from past seasons—go to weekendswithyankee.com.