“Farm-to-table” food is such a ubiquitous descriptor in the restaurant world that it has lost all meaning. It is the floor — the very least most diners expect from not only the best restaurants in their cities, but from their neighborhood restaurants too. Diners who care about the quality of their food, and even its environmental impact, expect a restaurant to work with local farmers, ranchers, vintners, and brewers.
But when Michelle Carpenter decided to open Restaurant Beatrice, a Cajun restaurant with a menu inspired by her mammaw’s Louisiana cooking, she and her team wanted to explore doing more than the bare minimum. They asked: What initiatives could they install around sustainability in their food program? How could they be of the neighborhood — the historically Latinx and Black South Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff — rather than a restaurant that landed there? And what could be done to improve the work lives of the staff in the midst of a highly uncertain time in their industry?
Carpenter, who also owns Zen Sushi in Bishop Arts, says that having to learn to pivot during the COVID-19 shutdowns was a difficult learning process. “It forced people to start thinking of things differently. It became an opportunity, but it was not easy,” she says. Carpenter notes that the mass exodus of the labor force in front- and back-of-house service has created a “new crop of people” working in restaurants who are younger, and who expect things to be different — and better.
Ultimately, Carpenter and her business partners decided to try to become a certified B Corp (benefit corporation), meaning the company agrees to follow high standards for social and environmental performance, accountability to the community, and transparency, and began the process with Beatrice. In 2020, the director of equitable growth for B Lab, Andy Fyfe, told OpenTable there were fewer than 30 B Corp restaurants in the U.S. and Canada, but that interest in certification was on the rise in the food industry. B Corps are required to “meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability,” according to B Lab, which approves certifications. The process requires completing an impact assessment, made up of 250 questions that evaluate the company’s practices and results in the areas of governance, workers, community, the environment, and customers.
With an eye toward the environment, the team at Restaurant Beatrice, from Carpenter to executive chef Terance Jenkins and down the line, has been brainstorming ways, big and small, to reduce its waste. That led to a cocktail program that uses everything from citrus peels to daily coffee brews as the starting point for the fresh syrups and juices in the drinks. The kitchen utilizes all the scraps of meat, bones, and vegetables to make stocks and sauces. The leftover tea made for daily service is reserved to brine the next day’s pork. Leftover biscuit dough is made into biscuit crackers. The restaurant sells canned goods and jams made in-house, and offers a $1 credit to diners who bring the Ball jars back to be reused. Paper menus one day become plate liners the next — my first dish of the restaurant’s excellent creme brulee cheesecake was served on one. It’s all in service of a goal to minimize waste.
Dallas chefs frequently lament the lack of local farms available to readily tap into. Ahead of the restaurant’s opening back in May, Jenkins told Eater Dallas about Beatrice’s burgeoning relationship working with Restorative Farms. The organization, founded by Tyrone Day, Owen Lynch, Doric Earle, and Brad Boa, is an urban farm in South Dallas that employs, educates, and feeds citizens in a part of town that has limited access to grocery stores offering fresh produce. It began growing in February 2020 and Beatrice is its first commercial partnership with a restaurant.
Eater Dallas joined the Beatrice team to visit their hydroponic grow room and garden in Fair Park, located right under the ferris wheel, just ahead of the state fair in late September. Thanks to its partnership with Big Tex Urban Farm, Restorative gets free rent, water, and electricity in its grow trailer and at a nearby greenhouse. Boa recalls a farmer in the program who forgot to water the restaurant’s first order, and when that crop did not get delivered, Jenkins scrambled to find another farm to supply the restaurant that week. As the farmers have added new crops into Restorative Farms’ rotation — several at the request of Jenkins and Carpenter for Beatrice — there have been some snafus. But it’s worth it to the chefs, who view their relationship to the farm not just as one of supply and demand. “It’s exciting for us when Restorative Farms is doing well on a certain item, like okra, one week,” Carpenter says. “Then we get a lot of that and it’s our job to come up with ways to use it.”
Restorative also has a lot a few blocks away from Fair Park, where it is growing red okra, tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers, radishes, and jalapenos on land it leases from Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) for $10 a year. Before Restorative took over the land in 2019, Boa says, there was an empty house that used to be a “juke joint” on part of it that the city condemned and removed. Restorative also bought that land to get a full acre. Now it’s half in use, with rows of vegetable crops and a covered garden shed for herbs. Dotting the entrance are grow boxes, which Restorative gives away to locals and sells to community gardens and for educational purposes. The Beatrice team wants to work with Restorative to pilot a composting program and a worm farm, where the restaurant’s food waste can be used to feed worms, enrich soil, and help grow future crops. There’s a mound of dirt on the farm they’ve got picked out for it.
“Know your farmer and know your rancher” is a mantra for the staff at Beatrice, who repeated it multiple times, especially as they prepared to host a whole-pig dinner with Maker’s Mark in October. The whiskey distiller is also a B Corp. Toné Castillo, a Maker’s Mark Diplomat who oversees North Texas and Oklahoma, sought out Beatrice after he saw its Instagram post about its pending B Corp certification. He tells a story of coming in for lunch, unannounced, and being so blown away by the food that he had to meet Jenkins. The pair chopped it up and the seed of an idea for a sustainability-themed dinner sprouted.
Carpenter got in touch with her brother, Jeff, who is a rancher in central Louisiana’s Winn Parish, and chose a pig for the dinner. Together, she and Jenkins developed the menu. Alongside Maker’s bourbon spritzes, attendees sampled a mini cochon po’ boy, a mini corn dog with house-made andouille sausage, and sweet tea-brined riblets. Out back, in the parking lot on the side of the restaurant’s covered patio, a whole pig — minus the parts that were used to make the pulled pork for the po’ boy and the ribs — was on the grill.
Eventually, Carpenter wants to work with the ranch more to select all the pigs and cows Beatrice will serve from the JC Cattle Company; that family connection allows her to cut out the middleman and really know her rancher. Carpenter says that the farm has been in her family for more than 100 years. “The government allocated certain plots to people who wanted to homestead, and my great-grandfather was able to get, I think it was 100 acres, and farm that land,” she says. “I saw this actual piece of paper from the government that was very dog-eared, and folded a hundred times. ... It was really special for us to find.”
Though her family hasn’t been doing much with that land of late, Carpenter’s brother has been using it to raise cattle, and they have big plans for the future.
The bar is Carpenter’s favorite spot in Beatrice. It offers a bird’s-eye view of the whole place, an ideal perch from which to sample a plate of roast pig with jambalaya risotto, chicken, and more andouille. For the main course in the cochon dinner, out come braised greens made using a ham hock, fennel and apple slaw, delightfully spicy Cajun potato salad, and a Maker’s 46 bourbon sour made using citrus from the restaurant’s minimal-waste program. Castillo notes that part of the appeal of pairing bourbon with Cajun food is the contrast: the sweetness of the bourbon with the salt and spice of the food. I tell him that I need the help of that cocktail, because this potato salad has one hell of a kick.
Just as it is important for the restaurant to source food from the region that doesn’t travel far (in order to reduce its environmental impact), it is also important to Carpenter that the staff at Beatrice be part of Oak Cliff. Jenkins relocated to the neighborhood from a job in The Woodlands; he grew up in New Orleans and worked in the kitchen at the city’s standard-bearer of Cajun cuisine, Commander’s Palace. Three-quarters of the restaurant’s staff live in the neighborhood, and Carpenter tells me that three staff members, who work at both Beatrice and Zen Sushi, carpooled in together from Downtown at one point. “It’s less travel time, it’s less gas, and [the staff are] invested in this community, because they live in this community,” Carpenter says. “We’re trying to make an impact, as small as it is; it could grow into something bigger.”
The restaurant’s internal reporting, conducted and to be shared transparently as part of its efforts to get B Corp certification, notes that the entire leadership team identifies as BIPOC and the vast majority of the staff identify as either BIPOC, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, or as an underrepresented age group. Jenkins, as executive chef, is one of only a few Black men to hold that title at a fine dining establishment in the Metroplex. At the same time, the restaurant makes it a mission to be accessible to the community. Offering lunch and brunch, in addition to dinner, is part of that, as is pricing dishes affordably for white table cloth dining.
Quality comes up numerous times in conversation with Carpenter; it is always at the forefront of her decisions. She mentions it when we discuss how the restaurant hopes to shift its oyster sourcing in 2023, away from the East Coast and to Alabama, to further reduce its carbon footprint. It comes up when she discusses the partnership with Restorative Farms — if the food doesn’t meet her quality standards, it won’t be served. (Happily, it does.) And she mentions it when showing me what’s behind the bar, as we discuss how relationships with several liquor brands came together.
The Beatrice bar is stocked with names one doesn’t frequently see around town and not with the typical best-selling spirits. There’s the Uncle Nearest, the Black woman-owned distillery that’s named for the enslaved man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey. She points to the bottles of La Gritona tequila, from a master distiller who is a Mexican woman, whose entire staff is made up of women. The bottle is made from recycled Mexican Coke bottles, and uses a lightning closure made of rubber and metal, the kind old soda bottles used to have, with a label that’s embossed on the glass, making it easily recyclable. “We reuse those bottles, because it has that really nice pop top,” Carpenter says.
The Beatrice team is seeking out like-minded people in every aspect of the industry, and creating a collective. It’s time to start watching to see what impact those incremental, small changes make in Oak Cliff, in Dallas, and beyond.
Correction: November 10, 2022, 11:19 a.m.: This article was corrected to show that daily coffee brews and not grinds are used in the restaurant’s syrups, and that Restorative Farms began growing in 2020, not 2021.