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Chef grows produce, raises cattle for kitchen

Q&A with Andrew Little, executive chef at Sheppard Mansion

When it comes to serving local food, Andrew Little has a distinct advantage. He’s not in a lush, semi-tropical climate with a 365-day growing season, but he is based in the rich farm country of York County, Pa., where he has been the executive chef of Sheppard Mansion since the former family home opened a restaurant in 2006.

Like many chefs, Little has developed relationships with local farmers and bakers. But he also grows his own produce and has his servers and cooks help tend the crops, imbuing them with a sense of ownership and enthusiasm they can pass on to their guests.

In addition, the Sheppard Mansion has the rare advantage of having four butchers within 15 miles who are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to slaughter animals. As a result, Little and the operation’s co-owners, Kathy Sheppard Hoar and Heather Sheppard Lunn, have their own Scotch Highland cattle processed, hung and butchered to order. The beef is served in the restaurant and sold at the market that the owners opened last October in the mansion’s carriage house.

How does having your animals slaughtered locally affect your food?

For one thing, we can manipulate the hanging time. The fat cover content varies with every one of our animals, and our butchers can adjust to that. [A butcher] can call and say, “You have one that has a little more fat; do you want it to hang for a couple of extra days?”

The farmers we work with for pigs and chickens also have mobile facilities. So we can have the meat the day the animals are slaughtered.

How often do you have one of your cattle slaughtered?

We have 160 head of cattle, and we used to go through about one a month, but with the market that we opened in October for four days a week, it looks like we’ll be going through two or three animals a month.

Tell us about the Scotch Highland breed.

They’re foragers, not grazers. They’ll eat anything, so the quality of your pasture doesn’t have to be super top-notch. They also have two coats — one of fur and one of long hair, so that keeps them warm enough that they don’t develop a fat cap. So they can’t be hung for as long [as angus or other beef cattle], but they’re very well marbled.

What are you growing in the your garden?

We just started it last April, and basically we grew things that we couldn’t get elsewhere. Charentais melon is a big thing for us. We also grow things that I like, but only if they’re straight out of the ground, like lima beans, which become mealy and starchy and not anything that’s really pleasant if they’re out of the ground too long.

Last year we had eight types of heirloom tomatoes. This year we’ll have 25.
We also grow green beans, yellow wax beans, edible flowers, borage and yarrow. And we do cucumbers for pickling, and potatoes, especially because we can use them throughout the winter. And corn, of course.

We’re learning as we go. Last year we planted everything so it all came in at one time. We were able to throw the corn in a dehydrator and use it all winter, but we’ll be staggering it this year.

I really can’t express enough how much it informs cooking when you have the garden. When I’m able to talk to another producer on the phone, and they say they’ve lost a crop, I know what it feels like, because I’ve lost crops too.
And when waiters have bent down for four hours to plant the potatoes, it changes the way they describe it.

But they also have to read the table. If people are just interested in having a quiet dinner, we don’t tell them about where the food comes from, but nine times out of 10 the waiters say how much fun it is to plant and harvest the food.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the name of co-owner Kathy Sheppard Hoar and the original use of the Inn, which was as a family home.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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