It’s been more than two years since we opened Jack Allen’s Kitchen in Oak Hill. From the beginning, we were committed to sourcing as many of our ingredients locally as possible. I spent a lot of weekends at farmers markets—buying from the farmers I met. And eventually, those relationships transitioned into direct orders on a weekly basis.
But until now, I had never taken the time to actually see where my food was coming from. So I took a couple of weeks for a personal farm tour—traveling a total of about 4,500 miles to meet the people who take care of us. I got to see them in their own environment, where they roll up their sleeves day and night to produce some of the best fruits, vegetables and meats in the state.
Along the vast stretches of road, I’d stop at gas stations and ask locals where I could find the best restaurants and diners. Some nights I’d spring for a motel, but other nights, I’d just sleep in my truck. I visited those who manage pigpens and long stretches of vegetable gardens and met their families as well. I saw how Texas olives are harvested and markets with the freshest seafood you can imagine. And at each click on my odometer, I gained a deeper appreciation for the life a farmer leads.
My first stop was at Richardson Farms, which is known for pasture-raised pork. Owner Jim Richardson put me on a four-wheeler for a tour and I found something I wasn’t expecting: ducks, cows and turkeys! It’s so easy to get tunnel vision as a chef when you just order the one thing a farmer is known for. We spent the rest of our time surveying some of the 200 acres of healthy, happy animals this family farm has and it only deepened my commitment to work with them.
My next stop was Tecolote Farm in Manor. They grow about 150 varieties of veggies, and they are all about quality. If a vegetable is not right, they will till it back into the earth. In reality, they’re leaving money in the fields, but it says a lot about the integrity of what they do. It’s a simple philosophy that a lot of chefs, including myself, have for their restaurants: if a plate isn’t right, then it doesn’t leave the kitchen. Meeting with owners David and Katie Pitre gave me a close-up glimpse of the journey a vegetable takes from farm to plate and just how important that philosophy of perfection is every step of the way.
From Tecolote, I drove back through Bastrop and stopped in Cedar Creek, where Johnson’s Backyard Garden has one of their locations. (Altogether, they have about 70 acres of farmland here and in the heart of East Austin.) Here, Brenton and Beth Johnson have created a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that serves families throughout the area.
Visiting the Johnsons stood out as another example of just how little I knew about how much these farmers actually do. Not only is there an abundance of beautiful vegetables, but the sites are managed efficiently for water consumption—something Brenton’s former career in municipal water management helped foster. Many CSA members volunteer at their two locations where they learn about farm work and where good food comes from. It’s an investment in the community that is inspiring.
My next stop was in Poteet, where Texas’s famous strawberries come from. If you’ve had a strawberry from Poteet, chances are it came from Cora Lamar of Oak Hill Farms. Her strawberries may be some of the best, but I depend on Cora for spinach for my Navajo tacos with fried spinach. It’s got to be thick and full of water, and hers is the only crop I can find that I like well enough. When her spinach isn’t in season, I don’t make Navajo tacos.
Next was Carrizo Springs and the Texas Olive Ranch. We use a lot of their olive oil when finishing our dishes, and I got to see firsthand where the olives grow. Owner Jim Henry didn’t really know what he was doing when he started, but he was determined to start a Texas olive oil industry. They have about 40,000 trees at their own farm, and have started a consortium of ranchers who grow a total of about 150,000 trees on their properties, combined. All of the olives are taken to Kyle after harvest to be pressed and bottled.
Afterward, I headed to Bandera to visit Diamond H Ranch where I source quail. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was blown away by their operation. Father and son Mike and Chris Hughes, who also own Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram, raise quail both for hunting ranches and for commercial sale. They farm-raise the birds from egg to grown and they process about 9,500 birds per week. We use about 2,000 quail legs a week at Jack Allen’s and, in my opinion, the Hugheses’ are the best. With the opening of the second Jack Allen’s, we’ll need double from them. On this visit, I wanted to make sure they could handle the additional demand.
I also went to Broken Arrow Ranch, a purveyor of wild game that supplies restaurants all over the country. They have contracts all over the state to hunt wild game and process it for sale. You can get anything from axis to South Texas antelope to wild boar. It’s a great concept as it helps Texas ranchers manage their game populations in a humane way.
My next stop was my childhood home. I’m originally from Brownsville and I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley. I primarily get my jalapeños and citrus from that area—particularly organic oranges and grapefruit from G&S Groves near McAllen.
After visiting the Valley, I headed to the Port Arthur area and Seabrook area (near Galveston). When I was about 15, I worked on a shrimping boat and I remember the hard work involved. It was a great experience to meet the fishermen at the local seafood markets, and I was reminded of the abundance the Gulf Coast has to offer. Being in the coastal area renewed my commitment to serve Texas seafood. If Texas oysters or shrimp aren’t in season, I wait until they are.
I also made a point to visit Holmes Foods in Nixon where we source a lot of our chickens, Milagro Farm east of Austin where we get eggs and a few of the farms near my home in Lago Vista including Bat Creek Farm in Bertram and Hairston Creek Farm near Burnet.
Overall, I was amazed by the variety and quality of the farms we have in Texas, and by the many people who are trying to do the right thing by our food. They have some of the hardest jobs, and seeing the abundance of their labor made me want to work that much harder to properly appreciate and showcase their bounty.
Jack Allen’s Kitchen (South)
7720 W. Highway 71
Jack Allen’s Kitchen (North)
2500 Hoppe Tr.