Crave 10: #10 – The Worthington Inn

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

Under longtime chef Tom Smith, local has always been The Worthington Inn's mission. But this year, the historic restaurant took that philosophy one step further, shirking its longstanding Sunday brunch buffet for a less wasteful and more delightful a la carte menu. Leading the changes, Smith, seemingly re-energized, makes us rethink the way we view Ohio cuisine with familiar and fresh fare.

To best understand The Worthington Inn, you've got to get to know the friendly and farm-minded executive chef Tom Smith. Last year, Smith moved his family to an 1825 brick farmhouse surrounded by the Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area north of Marion. They quickly set to work, turning the 6-acre property into a mini farm where they grow vegetables, fruit and wildflowers.

"This is the best thing that ever happened to me, moving here," Smith says. "We're learning so much. I want to embrace it."

Though Smith has always been local-minded, sourcing from some nearby purveyors for more than a decade, he's steering the traditionally American menu of the historic Worthington Inn with one question in mind: What is Ohio cuisine?

On his grandmother: "My grandmother was not a trained chef, but she read voraciously," Smith says. She was his first teacher in the kitchen. He'll never forget the dinner she made him before he left for the military. "She made poached pears for dessert, a smoked salmon mousse. She did something that I still do; She cooked a lot of fish in vermouth. Those kinds of memories are what drive me to be a chef."

On the garden: Surrounded by a small electric fence, Smith's English-style garden has 14 beds. He's starting modestly, he says, trying to get a feel for what will grow best. Then, he'll continue to add to it. "The production this year has been phenomenal," Smith says. He points to raspberry and blackberry bushes, to where he's growing muskmelons, watermelons, tomatoes and Swiss chard. Behind the old horse barn, he's also got a pen for chickens and roosters.

On hot sauce: The hot peppers he grows will become the Worthington Inn's signature hot sauce. "To make one batch of hot sauce it takes 10 pounds [of Scotch bonnet peppers]," Smith says. "I use a bottle of St. Germain in it, too. It's elderflower. So fruit and flower-it's amazing."

On saving seeds: Smith built raised beds from white oak scrapped from the property's old sheep barn. "I can't stand waste," he says emphatically. In early September, his herbs are flowering. He's intentionally let them go to seed. "We're big seed savers," he says, recounting plans to ferment and dry his last batch of heirloom tomatoes so he can swap seeds with his employees and purveyors. "That's an old tradition I've grown up with."

On sourcing: Smith makes a point to source from local purveyors. "I've got to call 16 people a week. It takes a lot more work, but the relationships I have, that's invaluable," he says. "I want the best ingredients." The better the ingredient, the less you have to do to it, he says.

On cooking Ohio food: "We're going to try and be more regional, that's my goal," Smith says. He wants to find ways to use indigenous ingredients, like pawpaw, hickory nuts, black walnuts and sunchokes. "Like what that guy's doing at Noma (restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark), maybe we can find something that's interesting and we can bring it back. Let's see what we can do."

On his farm plans: With phase one on the farm nearly complete, Smith plans to add a pond and fruit trees, including apple and peach. Next year, he hopes to be able to source dishes from the bounty of his garden, and to continue to decorate dining room tables with wildflowers from their planted field.