The Herbfarm in Woodinville is widely considered one of the best restaurants on the planet. It is the only AAA Five Diamond restaurant west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. National Geographic called it the number-one destination restaurant in the world.
Dinner is a 9-course meal revolving around a theme, and the experience starts with a tour of the gardens. The Herbfarm was doing "farm to table" long before that was a thing. The chef, Chris Weber, who is the youngest chef at any Five Diamond restaurant in the country, will visit your table during dinner, and there are other presentations too, including an optional tour of the wine cellar and an invitation to feed The Herbfarm's pot-bellied pigs. The nine-course meal costs $225 to $285 per person, plus service and tax.
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"It's a very interactive, entertaining evening," said Carrie Van Dyck, who owns The Herbfarm with her husband, Ron Zimmerman, its original chef. She was describing what a night at The Herbfarm is usually like. But nothing has been usual lately.
"It's different," she said, when I reached her by phone yesterday. "There's nobody in the dining room to serve. So it's all about the kitchen. Chris has sort of reinvented our kitchen to create amazing boxed three-course meals, and Ron has created labels for each container, and some friends of the restaurant have worked with various hospitals to arrange food for the doctors, nurses, and janitors who are so hard at work on the other end of this difficulty."
The Herbfarm, having had to close like every other restaurant in the state, having had to lay off their staff, is now retooling their operations so that their delicious, high-end, one-of-a-kind meals are going straight to people fighting COVID-19 at EvergreenHealth, Virginia Mason, Swedish, Kaiser Permanente, and Overlake hospitals.
What they're attempting to do is "to create some sort of structure that would help the food chain, the local food chain," Van Dyck said. "Because when we're all done with this hibernation [in the restaurant industry], we're going to still need to eat. And the farmers, fishermen, foragers, ranchers—they have food that they've produced and their normal outlet is the farmers market and restaurants, and all of that is closed so they have nowhere to send that. So we wanted to help out the [vendors] who've been supporting us, and think of ways to continue to buy from them, and also help out these people who are doing an amazing job [in hospitals] right now."
She added, "We wanted to try to bring our staff back to work as well, since we had to lay all of them off. We don't have all of our staff working, yet, but we're working toward that end. Our farmer is still working. He's trying to grow a lot of stuff."
They have been able to bring back five employees part-time so far. But every day brings new challenges, and new announcements from the government. "The end date is so up in the air. I know the government says restaurants are closed till the end of the month, but I fully anticipate an announcement soon that it's going to be longer than that."
Meanwhile, the bills are piling up. "We have to figure out some way to pay our rent because our landlord is not being very cooperative at the moment."
The idea to repurpose the kitchen (and the talents of Chris Weber and his staff) did not come from The Herbfarm. "This whole project hatched from one of our fans and guests, Patrick Halstead, and he has a whole team of people that are taking care of the back end of contacting the hospitals and arranging the deliveries, and working to get us funds," Van Dyck said.
All of this is being supported by a GoFundMe that is currently seeking donations. Can you pitch in a few bucks? Pitch in a few bucks.
The more money they raise, the more food supplies they can buy, which means the more meals The Herbfarm can make for doctors, nurses, and janitors working in the facilities hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis, and the more money that can go directly back into the local economy of ranchers, fishermen, foragers, and the more of their workers they can bring back from unemployment. It's a win-win-win.
When I asked Halstead for the story of how this started, I got passed along to Carl Coryell-Martin. The idea really began with him.
"Last week was a dark week for me," Coryell-Martin said yesterday. "I was trying to figure out: What could I do to help?"
A week ago today, Coryell-Martin was talking to two of his colleagues at the technology company VMware. "It came up that there's a lot of people that want to help, and are very scared of this collapse of our health care system, and want to do something."
Another subject that came up: "This agony of all these restaurants closing."
In thinking about health care workers, restaurant workers, people in the greater Seattle area that wanted to do something to help, Coryell-Martin wondered: "Can I connect these three parties?" His first thought was to reach out to people to raise money to pay restaurants so they stay viable. His second thought was that they could raise money to give gift cards to health-care workers so they could order themselves free lunches with Uber eats or whatever. His third thought was: "Could we somehow get food directly to frontline workers so they have one less thing to worry about?"
Restaurants he talked to said they couldn't handle financing or logistics, but they could make food. So Coryell-Martin talked to his friend Patrick Halstead, whom he met at a networking event for Harvey Mudd graduates back in 2003, and Halstead reached out to The Herbfarm, which was worried about their future, like every other restaurant, and trying to figure out what they were going to do.
Right away, The Herbfarm said: "Hey we can do 35 meals tomorrow out of extra food" they had just sitting around. No donations needed. No advance warning needed. Last Sunday, two days later after Coryell-Martin had the idea, The Herbfarm created 35 meals that were delivered to hospitals: 30 went to Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, and the other five went to Swedish Hospital in Seattle.
An RN at Overlake took to Facebook to thank them. "Tonight we received your very generous and delicious food. It honestly brought tears to many of our eyes. It's been such challenging and stressful times. However, your thoughtful gesture made our day! Thank you so very much!"
Afterward, Halstead insisted on paying The Herbfarm something for their work. "Patrick was like: 'Hey, let's pay The Herbfarm. It's not fair for restaurants to pay for food. It's not sustainable." So Coryell-Martin and Halstead collected $800 from their friends to pay The Herbfarm for the food and labor that had gone into making those first 35 meals. And that's when they decided to start raising more money for more meals right away.
Coryell-Martin and Halstead were just getting started: "Let's do it again Monday, and let's go bigger, a three-course meal instead of two courses."
They started working the phones, calling everyone they knew, and found two more hospitals to deliver food to, and did a larger fundraising ask. "That night we made the GoFundMe live, and we raised $24,000 in 24 hours, which just blew me away," Coryell-Martin said. "And The Herbfarm said, 'If we can do 1,000 meals a week, we can survive this. And we can keep a small team employed.'"
So far, The Herbfarm has been producing between 100 and 200 meals a day.
In order to maintain social distancing and to prevent transmission of the coronavirus along the supply chain, the restaurant workers create meals, package them individually, and then leave them in a designated place in The Herbfarm parking lot for volunteers to pick them up. Volunteers drive the boxes of food to hospitals, but they do not carry them inside. Hospital staff members meet the volunteer driver outside (no shaking hands), and empty the vehicle of the containers of individually wrapped food and carry them into the hospitals themselves.
Last night, I waited outside a side entrance at Virginia Mason on First Hill, near a set of doors not being used by patients or the public right now. A few minutes before 6 pm, a red car pulled up, and a dapper guy in glasses and a collared shirt got out. He opened the trunk, the passenger door, and a rear door.
"Is this the food from The Herbfarm?" I said, approaching, and he smiled. It was Halstead. We did not shake hands, but we touched elbows as we introduced ourselves.
Moments later, Marilyn Nemerever, senior director of nursing at Virginia Mason, emerged from the building, took one look at what was in the car, and said, "Thank you so much! They're going to love this!"
In the front seat was a box of many tinier boxes, each with a label on top: Albacore tuna with Herbfarm radishes and tarragon. In the backseat of the car was what looked like a gigantic cooler, but actually contained little containers of nettle, leek, and potato soup.
"Oh, it's warm!" Nemerever said, having expected the cooler to be cold to the touch. In the trunk of the car was the bread to go with the soup.
Halstead and Nemerever talked for a moment—six feet apart from one another—about what was happening inside the hospital. Nemerever mentioned that they have COVID-19 patients inside who are getting better, adding, "It's good to see patients are getting better."
And then Halstead was off, and Nemerever and two other hospital employees were carrying the bread, the tuna, and the gigantic helping of nettle soup into the hospital.
"There's an appetite for this," Coryell-Martin said by phone yesterday. "How can we as citizens help the health-care workers? And there's this free trade: we don't just help the workers, we also help the restaurants we love. We're figuring how far we can go with this thinking."
Yesterday, through the efforts of volunteers, donors, and The Herbfarm combined, they delivered 200 meals to area hospitals. Tomorrow, they plan to deliver 300.
Van Dyck at The Herbfarm says they have the capacity to produce up to 4,000 meals per week. Coryell-Martin points out that this is scalable, and other restaurants may join in like efforts, or take this idea and run with it in other COVID-19 hot spots around the world.
But right now, his focus is on Seattle health-care workers, Seattle restaurants, and the cooks and dishwashers who've been laid off from them. "There's something like 25,000 front-line health workers in the greater Seattle area, and the end game for me would be: Let's feed them and their families dinner every night for as long as it takes. So that's 100,000 meals a day, times 10 dollars a meal, times 30 days, which is $30 million a month."
Jeff Rogers of Snoqualmie Valley Lamb, which is one of The Herbfarm's vendors, said in an interview yesterday, "Everyone is supporting each other along the chain of community. It's a great story about human nature and what people can do in a crisis for the community."
Rogers produces 100 percent certified organic lamb in Snoqualmie Valley and Sammamish Valley, and he sells to PCC and about 25 Seattle restaurants. He is spared a little bit in this economic downturn because "most of my product is sold fresh, not frozen, in the fall." Still, he expects to lose at least $15,000 this year. "But it's probably only 15 percent of my business. What does the future bring? I do not know. It could hurt really bad."
He is not exactly optimistic about the future of the restaurant industry. "It's so competitive. Margins are so thin. I don't expect everyone to resurface from this thing," Rogers said. "I'm crossing my fingers that everyone's going to be able to survive this because it's scary."
He had some frozen lamb on hand, so he donated it to this project. "It's the least I can do," he said. "I spend a lot of time by myself with my sheep, so I'm not mixing in the community like most of the workers are."
Because of that donation of frozen lamb, braised lamb with oregano has been one of The Herbfarm menu items that's gone to hospitals this week. Other individually wrapped items going out this week include grilled chicken with braised spring greens and green garlic, a salad of Sno-Valley oyster mushrooms and wild watercress, a hearty chili made with beef from Eric Fritch’s farm and beans from Walla Walla organics, and rosemary buttermilk biscuits made from Ferndale cream and butter.
And for dessert? Triple chocolate brownies one night, profiteroles of local rhubarb and angelica another.
"What we do is create memories here," said Van Dyck, The Herbfarm co-owner. "We try to make life as perfect as possible for just a moment. And that's what we're trying to add to the nurses' lives. A little bit of extra caring and flavor."
"I was worried about being one of these tech bros who's like: 'I see a problem and I'm going to solve it!'" Coryell-Martin said. But a week into this project, he can see that it is working, and that it could be a model to help keep parts of the food industry alive, while helping exhausted hospital employees. He's eager to see what can happen if they can raise more donations. As of this writing, they have raised $37,455.
"I've never done anything like this before in my life," Coryell-Martin added. "It's taught me so much. And the other thing that's so interesting: It's made me so much happier. This experience of working on the problem is so much better than being home worrying."