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Chef urges fresh and local foods

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 2/3/2010, 6:34 a.m.
This ham and potato casserole is one of the many dishes featured in chef Peter Davis’ award-winning cookbook...
This ham and potato casserole is one of the many dishes featured in chef Peter Davis’ award-winning cookbook “Fresh and Honest: Food from the Farms of New England and the Kitchen of Henrietta’s Table.” Davis is the excutive chef at Henrietta’s Table in the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square. Heath Robbins

For Cambridge Chef Peter Davis, knowing where your food comes from is key.

Davis, whose motto is “fresh from the farm and honest-to-goodness New England cooking,” combines cooking with conservation and encourages consumers to understand the origins of the food they eat.

Davis was recently honored with the New England Book Festival Award for “Fresh and Honest: Food from the Farms of New England and the Kitchen of Henrietta’s Table,” the chef’s first cookbook.

After guests at his Cambridge restaurant, Henrietta’s Table, began asking him to publish a cookbook, Davis realized that writing would be the perfect opportunity to put forth his culinary philosophy.

Davis grew up in Nahant on the North Shore of Boston. As a child, he said he loved spending time outdoors — on the family farm and catching lobsters in the ocean — as well as in the kitchen with his mother. From a young age, Davis realized that his passion for nature and cooking were intertwined.

His mother — who only cooked from scratch — would use the fish and produce he would catch or grow near their home — and the taste was delicious.

“I remember how much better the tomatoes we grew tasted than any we ever bought — loads juicier, shouting sweet flavor, and still warm from the sun,” he recalls in “Fresh and Honest.”

It was from these early experiences that Davis’ career as a chef and advocate of sustainable and local agriculture blossomed.

After culinary school, Davis worked in the kitchens of Hyatt hotels in Singapore, Bali and Hong Kong, and the Peninsula Beverly Hills. This exposed him to the “world’s diversity of ingredients” and taught him to adapt to new culinary circumstances while maintaining a repertoire of fresh foods.

Thirteen years ago, Davis returned to his native Boston to create a restaurant in the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square. This restaurant, Henrietta’s Table, was born out of Davis’ culinary values and relies on local farms and fishermen to serve regional cuisine “from farm to table” to its guests.

 “I think it’s important to know your farmer and know where your food comes from, how it’s grown,” Davis said in an interview with the Banner. “The key is trying to figure out where your food is coming from, how much care went into raising the animals or growing the produce or catching the fish.”

For Davis, eating fresh and local foods isn’t simply a philosophy — it affects health as well. “It makes a difference in the food that we eat. I think it tastes better; its better for us; it’s better nourishment.”

Knowing the diet and treatment of the cows, chickens and pigs that we eat is important “because what an animal eats is what its makeup is going to be,” he explained.

 If these animals are fed and treated well, “then chances are we’re going to get fed more properly.”

In October 2007, “Gourmet” magazine honored Henrietta’s Table as one of the best “farm to table” restaurants in the United States.

For individual consumers, Davis offers the same advice of investigating where food comes from. “Start using farmer’s markets. Start getting to know the farmers that you buy from,” he recommends.

And for those who shop at supermarkets, he advises, just ask questions. “You know, ask the store manager, where’s that salmon from and how was it grown? We’ve got to know that stuff, and they’ve got to advertise it.”

These demands are not only for the consumer’s benefit but can also alter methods of food production.

“If we all start demanding that this is how we want our food . . . then it’ll get back to the food producers,” he explains.

 “It’s really about getting to know where your food comes from and investigate a little bit,” he said.

Davis’ award-winning “Fresh and Honest,” published in 2008, captures his culinary philosophy. In addition to recipes, the full-color cookbook features beautiful photographs of New England farms and scenery, and sidebars with profiles of local farmers.

The recipes are all for traditional New England dishes, like butternut squash pie, smoked scallop chowder, and baked stuffed apples.