Tom Meyer: Farm to Table, America

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Entertainment,Food and Drink,Alexandra Greeley

Describing Tom Meyer, former corporate chef of Clyde's Restaurant Group and now its president, is quite a challenge: Meyer is personable, outgoing, talented. But perhaps the best way to summarize Meyer is this: He is a bold chef who has changed the way America eats.

Thirty years ago -- long before the farmers' market movement -- Meyer personally introduced the farm-to-table program to Washington, and as a result, to the rest of the country. The initial beneficiaries, of course, were the Clyde's restaurants. As Meyer's story goes, on summer weekends he drove up from the beaches in Maryland, stopping along the way at local farms to pick up fresh crops. "I went to Clyde's in Georgetown one day," he says, "and there was a hard melon from Chile in the restaurant." Recalling such farm-fresh crops of his Long Island childhood, Meyer decided to bring in fresh produce to Clyde's. "I just thought it was the right thing to do. You are supposed to serve the best food you can find. So I thought it would be easy to call up the farmers and order nice local melons."

But at first local farmers, who then did not deliver produce to restaurants, were wary of some restaurant chef pulling up in his Ford Bronco to buy corn, tomatoes and melons. "Instead," he says, "I had to drive there to pick up the produce myself, pay in cash, and the roundtrip took four hours."

Switching eventually to driving a truck decked out like an ear of corn, and later hiring others to do the farm runs, Meyer admits that serving farm-fresh produce initiated a learning curve for everyone, from farmers and chefs to greengrocers. But in those early days, Clyde's patrons got to enjoy fresh blackberry pies, corn on the cob, melons and a knock-out strawberry shortcake, all with local produce. Clyde's even initiated a farm dinner program at Reston Town Center for several summers in the early 1990s -- a sold-out event that starred the very best from local farms.

If you go
Clyde's of Georgetown
» Where: 3236 M St. NW
» Info: 202-333-9180; clydes.com/georgetown
» Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to midnight Sunday

By now, thanks to his early efforts, most chefs and home cooks appreciate the quality of just-picked farm goods. But Meyer has taken the Clyde's brand to new levels of success: For one, he has helped launch a series of new restaurants, each with a different look and a different ambiance. For instance, just compare the very august 1789 Restaurant in Georgetown with the country-comfy Clyde's at Willow Creek Farm with its two-acre organic farm out back.

He has also overseen the development of a solid, all-American menu and cooking style -- he may even be the first chef to create the warm steak salad, which he did at Clyde's of Georgetown -- and he has helped train a cadre of young chefs and managers who have gone on to successful restaurant careers. "I am really happy when I see these kids working," he says, nodding to a young man who used to eat at Clyde's as a toddler.

But perhaps his most recent triumph must surely be conceptualizing the Hamilton, a D.C. restaurant/nightclub that offers top-tier entertainment downstairs, with a flourishing -- and very large -- restaurant on the ground floor. "The whole music part is fun for me," says Meyer. "It gives the restaurant some cachet. Like last week, the downstairs room was used for rehearsals for the Gershwin awards. And the participants ate upstairs."

Does Meyer still cook? Of course, but not on the line, only when he works with his staff of chefs to perfect recipes. But it is easy to visualize Meyer picking up a pair of tongs and heading out back to flip over a pork loin roast on a blazing hot grill.

Q&A

What is the proudest moment of your career?

Opening the Old Ebbitt Grill. It has been one of the top 10 restaurants in the United States for the last 10 years. I was only 23 when I opened it.

What is your comfort food?

Pasta. I could eat it every day.

What's in your fridge?

Always canned tuna and pickles. I don't eat at home much.

Which is your favorite ingredient?

I would say tomatoes. I just love them. Even good canned ones ... and olive oil at $20.

Which is your favorite restaurant?

Not counting Clyde's, Palena. [Frank Ruta] is a great chef. I love that place. He is an epic cook.

Recipe

Grilled Eggplant and Tomato Salad

From Tom Meyer: "Grilled eggplant takes the place of mozzarella cheese in this summer salad. I grill the eggplant when the coals are white hot, before anything else has been grilled. The eggplant should be sliced thin so it takes just seconds to cook. The recipe for the vinaigrette is large and can be saved in the refrigerator: use it for a tossed salad or the next time you make grilled eggplant and tomatoes."

8 slices ripe tomatoes

Eight 1/4-inch-thick slices eggplant

10 leaves fresh basil

Olive oil

Vinaigrette:

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon herbs de Provence*

2 small garlic cloves, minced

1 small shallot, minced

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Pinch of salt

Brush the eggplant with olive oil and grill lightly on both sides. On a large round platter, alternately layer the eggplant with the tomatoes and sprinkle with chopped basil.

Combine all the ingredients for the vinaigrette in a jar or plastic container with a lid. Shake the vinaigrette vigorously. Drizzle the dressing over the tomatoes and eggplant. Top with fresh group pepper.

*Herbs de Provence is an assortment of dried herbs, most commonly used in the south of France. The mixture usually contains basil, fennel seed, lavender, marjoram, rosemary, sage, summer savory and thyme. The blend can be found in specialty supermarkets. If unavailable use some dry or fresh thyme.

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