Room to Grow
When the Auburn Tigers shocked football fans last season with their last-minute field goal return and touchdown to beat rival Alabama, the quaint Alabama town celebrated with the rest of the viewing public. And David Bancroft, chef/owner of his less-than-year-old Acre restaurant, fed them—even Chef David Chang visiting from New York City—very well.
Auburn has much more than its university and sports programs. Though relatively small, comprising 40 square miles and barely more than 55,000 people, the charming eastern Alabama city boasts miles of fruit orchards, farms, and gorgeous flower-filled terrain. It’s also quietly home to some of the country’s most promising chefs and farmers.
Take Bancroft, a San Antonio native who made his home in Auburn. After earning a marketing degree from Auburn University and meeting his wife, Chef Bancroft ditched the business world to cook at Amsterdam Café—which has seen a handful of chefs go on to earn accolades and James Beard nominations. There, he implemented the restaurant’s farm-to-table program six years ago by planting an herb and vegetable garden on an acre of land, a move that would serve as the inspiration for his first restaurant.
When scouting locations for Acre, Bancroft scrapped his initial plan to renovate an old farmhouse sitting on another plot of open land because of strict requirements from wetland conservationists. But when a piece of property near downtown Auburn dropped dramatically in price, the chef realized he’d found something better than the old farmhouse: This property had an acre of ready-for-planting Alabama red clay soil and some fun traditions nearby. Each time the Auburn Tigers win a football championship, which has been often in the last decade, the town tee-pees the trees at Toomer’s Corner just two blocks away. He knew he’d found his site.
With the help of a local developer and designer, he built the 170-seat restaurant from the ground up to resemble an English Tudor home. Though city regulations require a certain number of flower shrubs outside buildings, Chef Bancroft chose to plant upward of 60 edible fruit shrubs instead. Bancroft also replanted many fruit trees from his brother’s farm. His brother, a fruit-tree farmer with a horticulture degree from Auburn, taught Bancroft how to keep the trees growing in his own orchard.
Bancroft knows the benefits of an onsite farm. His garden at Amsterdam Café “gave us better control over our finances and labor costs, and we were able to expand to 60 more seats,” he says. “We produced so many vegetables I called other restaurant chefs to come over with a cooler, and we started running a farmer’s market out of our parking lot on Saturday mornings.” In the six years Chef Bancroft helmed the kitchen at Amsterdam Café, annual revenues shot up from $1.5 million to $2.6 million, thanks in large part to the farm-fresh focus.
At Acre, Bancroft says, “We planted every surrounding area around the restaurant with fruit trees and shrubs,” rattling off an impressive list that includes apples, plums, peaches, pears, persimmons, pomegranates, pineapple guavas, blueberries, olives, Meyer lemons, mandarin oranges, and limes. By this spring, the trees stood 6 feet tall with blossoms ready to open. Bancroft will likely supplement the bounty with the abundance of more than 400 peaches that two trees at his house have been known to produce.
Bancroft also built a 30-by-30-foot vegetable garden at Acre using raised beds, which already produced beets, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and collard greens at the end of winter, and will likely yield a bounty of summer crops this season. Those include a variety of heirloom tomatoes, beans, peppers, eggplant, peas, radishes, squash, melons, corn, and, later, pumpkins. He gets help from a group of volunteer agriculture students from nearby Auburn University and the Slow Food chapter he formed a couple of years ago. (Slow Food is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving traditional, seasonal methods for growing and cooking food.) Bancroft doesn’t use pesticides at Acre or his home, striving to make his farm and the food he grows as organic as possible.
Every day, Bancroft changes his modern Southern cuisine, depending on what’s available from the garden, orchards, and other local farms. A typical summer menu might include a butter bean gnocchi with grilled peaches, house-smoked bacon, toasted pecans, and a sorghum syrup drizzle, along with plenty of fresh salads and homemade ice creams that use blueberries, blackberries, and other fruits from the orchard.
At Acre, Chef Bancroft has continued the tradition he started at Amsterdam Café of sourcing only sustainable, fresh seafood. He also started an in-house butchery program with the help of another local chef, debuting the four-year-aged, homemade prosciutto he made at Amsterdam Café that’s now reached its prime.
A partnership with Auburn’s USDA-certified processing plant has helped him source fresh meats that are locally and sustainably raised, including some offal, which doesn’t scare him. He bought a smoker recently to take the program a step further, making elk summer sausage, braised lamb tongue terrine, and German-style dried salami. Chef Bancroft says Chef Chang told him he liked his venison heart tartar and pecan-smoked fried chicken with homemade ghost pepper hot sauce.
To preserve the bounty of his orchard and farm, Chef Bancroft plans to make lots of jams, jellies, infused hot sauces, and pickled products this season. Some he’ll sell in the retail space at the front of the restaurant, along with local honey, grits, and other foodstuffs from Alabama farmers and food industry friends. What doesn’t go into the food menu gets used for cocktails, like beet juice with vodka, lime, and mint or refreshing fruit and herbal soda mix-ins.
While Birmingham receives a lot of dining recognition in Alabama, as the home to chefs such as Chris Hastings and Frank Stitt, Auburn proves to be an up-and-coming culinary destination, thanks to its litany of chefs and farming culture.
“We joke that it’s a chef breeding ground,” Chef Bancroft says. Auburn’s also a “weird combination of different groups,” he adds, from students and football stars to corporate workers, business travelers, and retirees (the city was recently voted one of the Top 10 places to retire). At just 31 years of age, though, Bancroft isn’t retiring anytime soon.