Julie Golden’s dance card was full long before she opened The Golden Pig restaurant in Hopland earlier this summer.
There was the massive fire that wiped out acres of grazing land for the animals that Mendocino Meats’ Adam Gaske raises on her 2000-acre ranch near Ukiah. Then there are she and her husband Joe’s winery and vineyards, four school-age children, a menagerie of animals and her wine shop.
But it was her ongoing frustration about how restaurants source their food that made her a newly-minted restaurateur as well.
After years of selling her grass-fed beef, pork and chicken to high-end chefs, then watching them cancel orders when she claims her prices were undercut by larger food suppliers, she figured she’d put her money where her meat was.
In late June, she opened The Golden Pig as an outlet for her beef, pork, chicken, eggs and produce — with that of nearby farmers — and as a sort of experiment in bringing true farm-to-table food to more people.
“I didn’t do this to just to be a restaurateur,” she said. “I did it because I love farmers and I want people to be able to thank me for bringing them great food.”
Calling her restaurant farm-driven, rather than farm-to-table, the mission behind The Golden Pig is to grow honest food in healthy soil with clean water, lots of sunshine and minimal intervention, “to keep you healthy,” according to Golden.
“We’re investing in the land and the farmer, creating a culture that strengthens goodwill among local businesses and delivers fine food to each of our customers. It feels good to cook with honest ingredients. And it feels even better knowing we’re nurturing the land for future generations,” says the menu.
Golden hasn’t hired a chef, but trains cooks to execute simple dishes she’s helped to create, frequently based on what’s available rather than what can be delivered by a food service company.
“Farmers need somewhere for their food to go,” she said, adding that the claim of farm-to-table sometimes far exceeds the reality of what restaurants are actually serving.
As a producer, she said that frequently top chefs would feature her locally-produced products for a while, until food service suppliers were able to offer substantially lower prices than those being offered by her farm and other small producers.
Since restaurants frequently have slim margins on food costs, Golden said its understandable, but frustrating to lose those accounts.
“This wasn’t something I was just doing in my spare time,” she said. “I’m making good food, using the entire animal, and being sustainable. I thought it would be easy to make people understand. But until I opened a restaurant I didn’t understand,” she said.
“Now I understand why restaurants can’t easily work with small farmers. It’s complicated and there are market forces that incentivize restaurants not to. Yes, there are chef-driven restaurants like Thomas Keller’s that are truly farm-to-table but that’s just not affordable to the average person,” she said. By using her own products, and those of her friends, she hopes to both keep costs low and showcase the food of the region.