In a world filled with national restaurant chains, wholesale retailers and flavors that are concocted in chemical factories, what does it mean to produce real food? Considering the grand illusion that food should already be real, this is something that calls for a little deliberation. If food is suddenly real, what was it before? Was it the opposite of real–fake, false, feigned, artificial, untrue?
In all actuality, we’re guessing that its just a marketing ploy. But isn’t it a scoche scary that what should be a norm is now a novelty?
We can only be left to speculate. But amidst this trend in labeling food as real, there are craftsmen, the artisans who continue to feed the world with fresh, honest and natural products. One such artisanal establishment is the localvore haven Armsby Abbey, which its passion for all things purely pabulum.
“You see these commercials advertising real food–what does that even mean?” ponders Alec Lopez, owner of Armsby Abbey. Located at 144 Main Street in Worcester, the Abbey is more than just a local brewpub. It’s a godsend for local and regional food producers and farmers.
“Our mission is simple: to do the best we can. For us that means only using handcrafted items,” explains Alec. “We make everything from scratch here and use local products in the process.” And, while the beer may be anything but local–rare brews reign supreme–those lucky enough to be featured are always handcrafted and Alec handpicks them himself.
Apparently, beer isn’t the only thing handpicked by Alec. “My day starts at the farm. The greatest part of my day is picking,” confesses Alec. “There’s a zen in that. There’s a huge connection to everything, being at one with your inventory.” With all this integrity abuzz, it’s no wonder the Abbey is a special place to eat and work.
The Abbey roster includes nine chefs, two pastry chefs and 32 other employees, all of whom undergo–at minimum–a two-month training regimen. It’s no wonder there’s a sense of pride carried throughout entire establishment. “When we forge for nettles at the first break of spring, it’s like a fever runs through the whole building,” describes Alec. And once those nettles appear on the menu, the fulfillment settles in. “You know the person that raised [the crop]. Not only do we have a sense of pride in what we do, but it gives patrons a sense of pride in where they’re money is going.”
Working closely with family-owned Berberian Farm in Northborough, Alec has found ample ways to feed the community, both literally and figuratively. “It’s about community involvement. We’re constantly exploring the farms around us, creating networks,” says Alec. “It’s amazing how many great farms there are with great food and great products, just no marketing teams.”
In 2008, when Armsby Abbey was born, farm stands weren’t exactly a hot commodity. Now, with homesteading appearing as a popular trend, Alec is trying to educate. And he’s succeeding. After a formal submission to begin the central Massachusetts chapter of Slow Food International, Alec and his wife are taking Slow Food’s eco-gastronomic approach and applying it not only to at the Abbey, but in our very own community by attempting to create farmer’s markets and instruct others on home and urban gardening. “There has been this great push in the general consciousness toward [eating local],” Alec observes. “We thought we would have a narrow passage of people like us, but the whole world came through our door. Everyone from our favorite farms to old women to people who enjoy great beer.”
It’s this overall enjoyment of food and beverage that encapsulates Alec’s drive in the industry. “I’m from Argentina. I grew up with the baker’s son riding his bike down the street selling baguettes every day. I was raised on good wine and fresh food.” Moving to the U.S. in his later years, Alec quickly realized that the American way of consumption–cheap and colossal–wasn’t his style. “I remember my friends drinking cheap beer, but it never tasted good to me.”
Eventually, Alec opened with specialized beer at The Dive Bar. From there, he went on to open the Abbey. Similar to The Dive in brew selection, but also offering up gourmet pub grub; food was there just to compliment the offerings at the bar. “We were pounded by the demand for food, but we only have this tiny kitchen,” says Alec. “The demand just kept groaning and we were faced with this dilemma: people were waiting an hour for a table. But, they were happy about it.”
This astonishing turn of gastronomic delight has urged Alec to expand the Abbey. Acquiring the property next door, the kitchen will soon be across the hall, enabling an addition of 30-35 seats, and hopefully cutting down the waiting list.
So what’s next for Alec? It still involves yeast. Crust, his bakery, is set to open its doors in mid-August. “Everything I do is out of selfishness,” he explains. “The Dive was created because I didn’t want to drive an hour for craft beer. We created the Abbey out of my desire to become a chef, as well as to expand our beer reach. Making the bread there just made sense.” But the irony, the wonder, lies in the bread. After all, he just wanted to provide the Abbey with its own supply and break even. Virtually no risk. “The funny thing is, we’re already getting restaurants that are interested in buying our bread.”
Still skeptical? The first words to greet you on the homepage of the Abbey’s website: artisan and craftsman, along with definitions. Artisan: A worker who practices a trade or handicraft; Someone that produces items, such as cheese or beer, in limited quantities using traditional methods. Craftsman: One who creates or performs with skill or dexterity especially in the manual arts. Even in line with the Miram Webster Dictionary, Armsby Abbey just can’t get any more real.
Written by Julie Grady