Around the World to ‘Local’
Travels helped shape champion of home-grown cuisine
Bob Perry travels the world for the sake of local food.
In the summer of 1989 the wooden yacht Windward Passage approached Newport, Rhode Island, when it was enveloped by a storm blustering northward from South Carolina. Winds of nearly hurricane strength bobbled the 73-foot sailboat and its three-person crew like a toothpick atop 40-foot swells.
The sailboat’s chef, Bob Perry, held steady amid sustained winds of 70mph with gusts that tickled 90. Not long before, he had been slinging drinks while studying classical French and modern American cuisine as an apprentice in Columbia, S.C., yet here he was worlds away from his hometown of Hopkinsville, Ky.
For 18 hours, Perry battled the sea with pots and pans.
“I fed everyone through it,” Perry recalled. “If you don’t eat you get deathly sick.”
Perry, chef in residence for the Department of Human Nutrition in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the University of Kentucky, has been a culinary swashbuckler ever since. As the chef instructor for the school’s student-run Lemon Tree restaurant — a hands-on lab for Perry’s Quantity Food Production class — the blues lover from “Hoptown” who lives on a farm in Garrard County champions local food systems while preaching sustainable agriculture.
“I’m trying to have fun,” Perry said as a 200-watt subwoofer cranked out a YouTube concert featuring a collaboration between blues great Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones. “I used to think of myself as an altruist. Now I really think I’m just selfish.”
“I love good food and I know that helping to build a local food economy is economic development. I love where I live and I want where I live to be a nice place, and to do that you have to have an economy. And there really isn’t much left other than food.”
Perry’s down-to-earth approach makes local food accessible to everyone, says Lilian Brislen, executive director of The Food Connection, a new center at the school focused on regional food systems development and food literacy.
“Bob has been a really key player and just a great colleague,” Brislen said. “He’s been a great leader for the Kentucky food system, not just with consumers but with pushing institutions like the University of Kentucky and Kentucky parks to support local farmers and food entrepreneurs.
“As much as anything Bob has a passion for good eating, which is within all of our reach. We can eat delicious things that promote sustainability, and I really applaud Bob for that.”
World-refined cooking style
Perry, who says he has been drunk with two members of the Rolling Stones, spent two winters in the Caribbean and that summer in New England cooking on yachts. A picture of him on the sailing yacht Ashanti of Saba shows a bird perched on his outstretched hand — the image of an unencumbered soul ready to take flight.
He was a wandering soul at the time, his only real compass being a love for cooking.
“It was a different world,” said Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in sociology and philosophy from Murray State and a master’s in sociology from the University of Louisville.
His world would tilt toward Europe when Perry, after working in high-end steakhouses in Columbia, S.C., and eventually owning his own restaurant, Farmer’s Hall, turned his eye toward France.
Farmer’s Hall focused on French Provencal cuisine, and Perry wanted to learn from the source. So like anyone would do in the mid-1990s, he posted a message on a website in the Provencal region of France. The swashbuckler had set the course for his next adventure.
Soon after, he received a call from Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Pierre Eisenlohr was on the line with two very important questions: “When do you want to come? How long do you want to stay?”
Perry was greeted at the airport with a sign that read, simply: “Chef Bob.”
“I had never met these people,” Perry said. “I talked to them on the phone twice.”
Soon the boy from Hoptown found himself in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region of France in a village known the world over for its beauty and tin-glazed pottery, rubbing elbows with the masters.
Eisenlohr’s family owns Le Relais de Moustiers Hotel and Restaurant at the southern tip of the French Alps. Eisenlohr also happened to be the regional fire chief with a tricked-out BMW M1 series sedan that he liked to drive. Fast.
“As we’re screaming up the mountains going 100mph I’m thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?” Perry said.
Translating lessons learned
Le Relais’ local food sourcing is what truly opened Perry’s eyes.
One woman did nothing but bring the restaurant eggs. Someone else brought goat cheese. Another, potatoes. All the meat came from a butcher shop the next village over, wrapped neatly in paper.
One day Perry was charged with making mayonnaise. He gathered the salt and pepper and eggs and was ready to emulsify with some olive oil when it was nowhere to be found. He asked the chef where it was.
“He leaned back and said, ‘everywhere,’” Perry recalled. “There was a high shelf that ran all the way around the kitchen and on the shelf was every kind of bottle imaginable filled with the most vivid green olive oil. It was the most intense olive oil I’d ever had. It was, like, ‘wow.’ ”
In addition to Pierre’s father-in-law having been aide de camp to former French President Charles de Gaulle, the family owned an olive orchard.
In gathering food for the restaurant the kitchen staff would collect items at the local market placed on order. Then they’d stroll around and pick up anything extra that looked good. A deposit was paid and items were carted in wooden or plastic crates.
“There was no trash. There was no cardboard,” Perry said. “We were feeding 400 people a day and we didn’t fill up a 30-gallon trash container all day. It’s something I’ve been pushing ever since.”
Perry’s first visit to a grocery store upon returning stateside made his stomach turn.
“The first time I had to go to the grocery I was so disgusted,” said Perry, who grew up with a huge family garden and whose father bragged of growing more varieties of crops than Heinz 57. “I had been buying directly from farmers. This was before the local food movement was nascent here.
“When I got back from France it was, like, ‘Oh my God, this stuff is crap.’”
The view from home
Perry would champion local food systems, starting with his home state.
As director of food service at the Kentucky Department of Parks from 2004 to 2006, he developed a Locally Grown Produce Program that purchased fresh produce directly from farmers for all 21 food-service operations—a first for any state-run agency.
Music lover that he is, Perry also developed a program to produce CD sets featuring Kentucky musicians from several genres to be used for dining music.
“I love art, I love music, but I’ve got no talent in either,” he said. “My plating sucks. But I can really cook.”
Those cooking chops and his local focus caught the attention of the University of Kentucky, which hired him in 2006 to be the portal for the sustainable agriculture effort in Kentucky, serving as the go-between for farmers, researchers and advocacy groups to promote new food enterprises throughout the state.
In short, he became the go-to guy for questions about anything local-food-related.
“I tell them I probably won’t know the answer but give me a day,” Perry said, noting the university’s nearly 400 PhDs in the College of Agriculture and thousands of staff and Extension associations across Kentucky.
Scrolling through dozens upon dozens of folders in his email filing system, Perry rattles off project inquiries his office has fielded, from alternative butchering to heirloom tomatoes, from chocolate truffles to soybean oil, from rabbits to goat cheese — and everything in between.
“People call with these crazy things,” Perry said between sips of espresso. “I’m a chef, not a scientist.”
Finding a solution
From Perry’s home just outside Lancaster, Ky., he can see Marksbury Farm Market, whose slogan is “Buy Local. Eat Well.” It’s where Perry has his meat processed, and where he conducted studies on a recent research project on heritage breed of pigs.
“He’s always so welcoming and informative,” said Wyatt Sarbacker, manager of Marksbury’s retail program. “He’s to-the-point and well-educated. He’s always full of knowledge and he’s quick to share it.
“If you need something, call Bob. He’ll find it. He’s a great asset to the community.”
Locally grown economy
According to a 2014 report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms with direct-to-consumer sales like Marksbury increased by 17% and sales increased by 32% between 2002 and 2007. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farms with direct-to-consumer sales increased 5.5% with no change in direct-to-consumer sales, which the report stated could be due to plateauing consumer interest in food sold through channels like grocery stores.
So local food seems to be thriving.
“The bottom line is that agricultural development is economic development, and that’s where we’re at,” Perry explained. “The more money we can keep locally in all businesses is all better for us rather than shipping the money elsewhere. How much stuff do you want to eat from China? How much stuff do you want to eat from five states away?”
But beware of the local trap, Perry warns, noting that just because something is local doesn’t always make it better.
“The term ‘local’ and the term ‘scale’ in and of themselves have no inherent meaning,” Perry said. “Everything is local somewhere. What about it affects the local economy?
“If you buy meat from a local farmer that affects the economy because you’re getting to know the farmer, other customers. How often do you stop and talk to somebody in a grocery store or a big box store, and how often do you stop and talk to somebody at a local farmers’ market?”
The millennial generation seems to be grasping the concept.
At the Lemon Tree, everything in the three-course lunch meal — a bargain at $12 — is made from scratch. Menus are released at the beginning of the semester and the restaurant is booked within three hours.
“I teach people how to cook real food,” said Perry, adding that real food is made from scratch. “I found that once people taste what really good food is, generally they don’t go back.”
For Perry, food is life, which is something his students soak up like ladyfingers. His sole goal is to teach them how to cook while appreciating the process — especially what to do with leftovers.
“I’m more willing to try new things now,” said Emily DeWitt, 22, Hodgenville, who studied under Perry as an undergraduate in dietetics and is pursuing a graduate degree in nutrition and food systems. “He kind of just puts something in front of you and says, ‘Try it.’ Afterwards he says, ‘You just ate chicken liver.’ It’s something that if he had told me ahead of time I would have never tried myself.”
On a recent Tuesday, DeWitt and classmate Emma Simpson were whipping up a batch of tiramisu made from — what else — scratch in Lemon Tree’s kitchen.
Simpson, who hopes to be a clinical dietician, said Perry’s wisdom “will help when we have patients in the future or we’re trying to help someone with their diet,” she said, adding she has newfound courage. “You realize it does require a skill set and knowledge. It’s something we can help future patients with, rather than just telling them what to do.”
From a swashbuckler seasoned by the sea and world travel to graduate students stoked for “Tiramisu Tuesday,” the local food circle of life continues for Bob Perry.
“I can’t come up with a good analogy. I’ve tried,” Perry said of the importance of local food. “Because food is essential to life. It’s a personal choice what you spend your money on.
“And a lot of people are willing to buy better food.”
About the Lemon Tree
The Lemon Tree provides experience for students of the Quantity Food Production class. Students learn trough working a series of stations designed to provide hands-on experiential learning activities, teaching food preparation and processing, food production, sanitation, safety, waste management, food science, and sustainability. Students also practice leadership, ethical practices, and hospitality with the public. Reservations are required and made by contacting Tracy Cayson, 859-257-3800, firstname.lastname@example.org. https://www.facebook.com/UKLemonTree/
For upcoming events with The Food Connection at the University of Kentucky, please see the February calendar of events on page 10.