Backwoods Crossing | Tallahassee, FL

Backwoods Crossing | Tallahassee, FL

Growing Goodness From the Ground Up

As guests wander up loosely manicured pathways to the white, ranch-style building in an idyllic, rural setting about seven miles from downtown Tallahassee, 40 raised beds filled with vegetable plants, flowers and herbs grow up around them. Chickens cluck in the near distance and people sit around outdoor tables sipping cocktails made with freshly picked produce and nibble on dishes plated with beautiful Southern fare. The building behind all the activity looks like just another neighbor's home with one exception: the letters E-A-T perched above the door.

This is Backwoods Crossing, a true farm-to-table restaurant that opened in June of 2016 by chef Jesse Rice and his brother, Tyler, who returned from working on oilrigs in Qatar to partner with his brother. Jesse Rice already had 10 years under his belt with his other downtown Tallahassee restaurant, Backwoods Bistro, so when he envisioned his next place, he really felt the pull toward going local. Very local.

"It all starts from the ground up," Rice said. "It's in the love of the food. When you get fresh produce vs. mass-produced vegetables, you can taste it."

In addition to the 40 plots in front of the restaurant, the restaurant dedicates two acres behind the building to growing a variety of produce that all begin life as heirloom seeds planted in the on-property grow room. The team, which includes head chef Jon Stutzman and every line cook, takes shifts tending to the gardens to grow, well, pretty much whatever they want. In winter they produced purple broccoli, dragon carrots, scarlet kale, rainbow quinoa, purple radishes, Mary Washington asparagus and more. For spring, their attention shifts to emerald gem melons, lemon cucumbers, red velvet okra, Turkish and Japanese eggplant, Greek oregano and blue beauty tomatoes. While many of these items will end up in dishes as part of the main menu, Rice and Stutzman will highlight much of the produce on Backwoods Crossing's Garden Creation menu, which features eight to 12 items that change weekly — depending on what's growing out back.

And it's not just a bunch of vegetables thrown on a plate like crudité. Rice, whose first job at 14 years old was at a nursery, is a seasoned chef who honors local fare and dresses it up.

"I define what I do as a Southern spin on fine dining," Rice said. "I take everything I've been raised around — growing up on the coast, watching my mom in the garden — and incorporate that into my dishes. You can always get good Southern food, but it's not always plated nicely. I take all of what the South is and plate it elegantly."

While Backwoods Crossing has a sprawling garden and a chicken coop that produces 18,000 eggs a year from its 73 hens and one busy rooster (they keep about 10,000 eggs and sell the rest by the dozen), Rice doesn't consider it a vegetable-focused restaurant. Its menu has items like the Big Foot, slow-smoked pork loin topped with bourbon-glazed Granny Smith apples that sits on fresh local stone-ground cheddar grits; local catfish filet served with garden collards, roasted corn, béchamel and those local cheddar grits; and Deep South Maple Leaf Farms duck breast served with a sweet potato-green bean succotash. But it’s the Taste of the Garden at the 220-seat restaurant that really puts the vegetables in the spotlight. For $50, guests will get six sharable small plates the kitchen creates on the fly.

"We'll ask the table what they want and go back into the kitchen and create dishes based on what's growing and also incorporate local proteins," Rice said. "It's basically like one big appetizer with six tapas that comes out at once."

And like any good Southern restaurant, hospitality looms large with Tyler Rice and their mother greeting guests, visiting tables and talking about the chickens, the garden and, of course, the food. It's all about creating a homey feeling, to show appreciation for what they're able to grow and to share all that with their diners.

"People will walk up to the restaurant and see people harvesting peppers or whatever," Rice said. "If we're on a wait, they can explore the garden. They'll see things growing and then see that on the menu. It connects them directly to the food."

Maybe they should call it garden-to-table dining.


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