Boise restaurateurs farm for fresh ingredients
It started with a quirky Craigslist post and a distinct vision for a Hyde Park wine bar.
“This concept is higher-end and funky, but never pretentious. It is intimate and welcoming, and the wine, food, and service will strive for old-school excellence – anything less is not acceptable,” read the post. “This is primarily a one man/woman enterprise during service. … If you believe that limitation is the muse for true creativity, then this is the kitchen for you.”
That is how Christian Phernetton, a talented but somewhat reluctant chef with an extensive farming background, entered the lives of restaurateurs Scott and Caitlin McCoy in the summer of 2017. And that is how, over the course of a year, the McCoys – and some of their staff – have become farmers themselves.
Together, Phernetton and the McCoys have quickly transformed 7,000 square feet of feral land off North Five Mile Road and West Fairview Avenue in Boise into a thriving urban farm – one that is already supplying produce for Camel’s Crossing, the McCoys’ original Hyde Park venture, and the group’s iteration of State & Lemp, the high-end restaurant they bought in May.
“We want to be able to have chef and staff come out here in the morning first thing and pick what’s going to be on the menu that night,” Scott McCoy said.
Since locating property for the farm and commencing battle with weeds, earwigs and the ground itself back in April, the team now tends to a wide assortment of plants: okra, Salanova lettuce, Swiss chard, cabbage, kale, arugula, mustard greens, cucumbers, eggplant, 20 varieties each of peppers and tomatoes – including Phernetton’s own heirloom tomato – and more than 100 summer squash plants.
And they’re only getting started. Phernetton’s vision extends far beyond the several acres of still untamed land on the newly leased property. He sees a future with “thousands of acres. … More farms, more produce.” All grown sustainably.
In short, he said, he wants to try growing everything: “Why can’t we?”
Planting the seeds
Throughout Phernetton’s childhood, something was always growing – gardens and farms, plants and animals. He learned the basics of both farming and cooking from family, and then worked for Boise chef Peter Schott while still in high school. That experience kicked off an early culinary career that spanned several cities and cooking sensibilities.
After moving to the Bay Area in 2013, Phernetton helped develop the health-focused Mission Heirloom food company in Berkeley, Calif. His job as the creative culinary director involved working with hundreds of farms in the region. It was during those visits that he realized farming was what he truly wanted to do.
Phernetton tried starting a farm in Petaluma, Calif. Then he realized that instead of attempting to find a place for himself in the saturated Bay Area market, he should take everything he’d learned back home to the Treasure Valley. He returned in 2016, the same summer that the McCoys moved to Boise from Portland. And as the couple began converting the former location of an antique shop on Alturas Street into what would become Camel’s Crossing, Phernetton spent a winter working on a farm in Bellevue.
Then came the Craigslist post, and the beginning of a partnership. When Scott McCoy saw Phernetton’s resume, he was blown away.
“A chef with his qualifications – they’re very few and far between in any part of the country, let alone Boise,” Scott McCoy said. “I said, ‘I will do absolutely anything it takes to work with you.’”
Phernetton’s heart remained with farming, but Scott McCoy persuaded him to take the job.
“Farms need an outlet too,” Phernetton said. “Boise could use a lot more restaurants that are driven by the local bounty. So that’s what I’m trying to influence.”
Though the McCoys had their chef on board, the Camel’s Crossing space was still under construction. During those months before opening in September 2017, Scott McCoy and Phernetton worked together to create a garden at the McCoys’ North End home.
“We worked in 100-degree heat together and we really bonded through that process. … Hard work will show your colors, and I saw that he had the most incredible work ethic,” Scott McCoy said.
Even though they planted exceptionally late that season, Phernetton’s wealth of knowledge ensured that most of the crops not only survived, but thrived. The small space supplied beets, turnips, radishes, lettuce, kale, cucumbers and spinach for Camel’s Crossing. And it ignited a new passion for the McCoys, who had virtually no previous farming experience.
“I think we always had some kind of an interest,” Scott McCoy said. “But it’s a big leap from having an interest to actually doing it on the scale that it turned into.”
The McCoys remember the first crop they watched transform from a seed to an item on their menu: nutritionally dense, aesthetically pleasing and fast-growing salanova lettuce. Once you eat it, Caitlin McCoy said, “You’ll never want to go back to another kind of store-bought lettuce.”
Finding a farm
In addition to the North End bounty, Phernetton always supplied produce for Camel’s Crossing from his family’s farm in Hammett. Caitlin McCoy recalls Phernetton’s mother arriving each week with several bus tubs brimming with carrots. But Hammett is nearly an hour outside of Boise, and the North End farm had its limitations. The McCoys’ newfound ambitions and Phernetton’s agricultural talents needed a bigger and convenient outlet.
They searched for months to locate suitable property for a larger, Boise-based farm. Their requirements: a landowner supportive of the concept, a convenient water source and easy accessibility for staff coming to pick daily produce. When they came upon the Five Mile Road land in April, it checked all those boxes. In fact, it had three sources of water – two wells and a canal – along with some additional perks. Among them: walnut trees, apiaries maintained by a beekeeper with more than three decades of experience, and a property owner eager to teach old-world techniques such as pickling. As a result, Scott McCoy plans to pickle green walnuts later this summer.
But the property was not without its challenges. The first order of businesses was addressing stacks of weeds that had accumulated over decades. To get plants growing quickly, the group turned to weed fabric.
“It’s not the most ideal solution in some scenarios, but it’s worked well,” Scott McCoy said.
Then there was the matter of the soil type, which is entirely clay and thus not ideal for growth. They ended up renting an auger to create 1,300 holes in the ground, then planted crops in those holes using amended soil that would allow for nutrients and water to reach root systems. Through the process, Phernetton taught the McCoys the nuance of soil science and the ways that plants themselves can slowly improve the quality of surrounding soil.
Scott McCoy says Phernetton has also taught him the benefit of simply taking action and avoiding the paralysis that can come from overthinking.
“Maybe you don’t have the best soil, like we don’t here,” Scott McCoy said. “But it doesn’t matter – we still did it, we’re doing it to the best of our ability with the resources that we have. And we’ll build on it next year, and we’ll build it on the year after that.”
‘Head over heels’
Certainly recent months have been all about taking action for the McCoys and Phernetton. As they embarked on the urban farm, they were also in the process of taking over the fine-dining establishment State & Lemp from previous owners Remi McManus and Jay Henry. With a larger space at State & Lemp for formal dinners, Camel’s Crossing – which had been serving full meals and five-course dinners from a tiny, crowded kitchen – has returned to its original concept, serving smaller dishes and flatbreads as a casual wine bar.
The McCoys have sold their North End home and moved closer to State & Lemp, meaning they are no longer maintaining a backyard farm in addition to the Five Mile property. Phernetton will continue supplying some produce from his family’s Hammett farm. The restaurants also still source produce from half a dozen other local farms.
Phernetton is co-owner at State & Lemp, but he plans to be executive chef at the restaurant only until he can find a culinary heir apparent. That way, he can devote his time to the farming. Scott McCoy sees the opening for a chef as an opportunity to bring another skilled culinary mentor to Boise.
“The possibilities are endless here,” he said. “There’s fantastic farmland here, there’s fantastic farmers. There’s great ranchers. All the pieces are here for this to be a really amazing culinary scene, but we do need some more mentors in town … so that they can create new talent that’s homegrown.”
Like Phernetton, Scott McCoy also sees himself as primarily a farmer going forward – potentially selling produce at a local farmers market by next year.
“I’m head over heels,” Scott McCoy said. “Christian (Phernetton) might have said I roped him back into cooking, which may or may not be true depending on how you look at it, but he definitely made me a convert – I want to be a farmer.”
The ultimate vision, Caitlin McCoy says, is to have a biodynamic farm that will support its surrounding ecosystem. She’s particularly excited about the educational component that comes with being a farm-to-fork restaurant.
“A lot of us don’t really know where our food comes from or we might not know what food looks like in its natural state,” she said. “We will be able to tell people the story of the third-generation pepper that they maybe have ordered up or how we grew these beans from seeds.”
VISIT THE RESTAURANTS
1304 W. Alturas St.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 3 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 3 to 10 p.m.
State & Lemp
2870 W. State St.
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday-Tuesday.