While I’m a big fan of the farm-to-table trend and the environmental sustainability that it stands for, I’m less thrilled about the pretensions and price tags that tend to come along with it. Which is why it was so refreshing to talk with Shawn Weed, the chef and restaurateur who has a vision for accessible farm-to-table food at his new restaurant The Acre, opening Nov. 10 in the Northeast Heights.
While we sat drinking coffee and looking over his menu, Shawn pulled up a photo on his phone of what looked like a plate of Chicago-style hot dogs. “They’re carrot dogs” he said, grinning ear to ear. “Do they taste exactly like hot dogs? No. But do they taste good? Hell yeah.” You only have to spend a few minutes with this guy to see that he loves his work.
While Shawn definitely has an agenda with The Acre—he’s crafting an all-vegetarian menu and sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local producers—his main goal is to create a restaurant where everyone can feel welcome. In his book, eating well doesn’t have to be a high-brow experience.
Weekly Alibi: So what’s the idea behind The Acre?
Shawn Weed: I’m not doing this esoteric farm-to-table thing—I want to go way back to my roots. Back when I was in Indiana, my grandparents had a farm. And when you worked on the farm, at the end of the day everybody would be at these picnic tables eating together. And sometimes there was meat, and sometimes there wasn’t. Sometimes it was watermelon and roasted corn with tons of butter on it. And you're sitting across the table from a cousin or another worker, and you have this sense of shared experience that people here don’t get. So, at The Acre, when you walk into the restaurant the first thing you’ll see is this big, reclaimed-wood communal table. And that might be a little difficult for some people—you could be sitting across the table from a stranger. But maybe you end up meeting somebody there that you’d never meet otherwise. Or maybe you sit there while you’re waiting for your friends to show up, and you’ll end up meeting somebody that you’ll later date! We usually rely on a bar for an experience like that. But at a bar you're sitting and looking at a bartender, and at a communal table you’re looking at somebody else. So it makes it a little more immediate and vulnerable. And I think the food has to fit that.
What sets you apart from some of the other farm-to-table restaurants in New Mexico?
Our price point is just the same as going to The Range or Flying Star. We’re not expensive. Because I want people to feel like it’s a place they can come to on a weekday night, not just for their anniversary. I want the neighborhood to think they have a place they can come to here. That’s as important to me as the food. I can do food, but creating atmosphere—that’s a big deal.
Why did you decide to do a strictly vegetarian menu?
I’m not vegetarian. So I feel like I’m really well equipped to make vegetarian food that everybody will like. Yes, even carnivores. I firmly believe that as Americans, we gotta cut back [on meat]. I have no objection to sustainably done agriculture, but the amount we eat forces us into using these monster farms that aren’t necessary. If we all just cut back a bit, it would be so good for the environment. It would drive quality up. I also have a lot of vegetarian and vegan friends. There’s a couple restaurants in town we can go to together, but like, there’s some I can’t go to anymore. I don’t want Thai food or Indian food every day, you know? I want to be healthier, I want to eat better, I want to take my kids somewhere they can eat healthy and actually enjoy it. I know so many families that, when they go out, they go some place where their kids can get chicken nuggets, and I just think we can do better than that. And I kind of like the fact that I’m going to get criticized for not being a vegetarian [and running a vegetarian restaurant]. Because I don’t think we live in a world of just black or white, where you have to be vegetarian or else not. Let’s take power out of the middle. If everybody eats better, everybody wins.
Tell me a little about the menu.
It’ll be a seasonal menu, so every quarter the menu will change. But within those quarters we’ll have a smaller menu so that we can have daily and weekly specials. And every day we’ll make homemade ice cream. If strawberries are in season, we’ll get strawberries that were literally picked a few miles away. Or maybe roasted pear and balsamic ice cream. It’s going to be different all the time. We’re also doing something on the menu called the ‘catch of the day,’ which, of course, is funny for a vegetarian restaurant. It’s a featured ingredient from a local farmer or producer. When the server greets the table, they’ll say, “Our catch of the day is a nutty and flavorful Romano cheese from Old Windmill Dairy that’s been aged 6 months, the farm is just down the way, and this is how we’re using it in the dish today.”
Do you think some carnivores will be a little cynical of going to a vegetarian restaurant?
Somebody along the way coined what I do as “vegetarian food for carnivores.” I wouldn’t stand behind it as my motto, but I do want to make vegetarian food that’s accessible to anyone that eats. It’s comfort vegetarian. It’s not a kale salad with roasted barley. I’m not trying to be that place. I love these guys I meet that are so cynical about vegetarian food, and then I say, “Well, do you like apple pie and ice cream? Flatbread pizza with a beer? Then you’ll find plenty of stuff to like on my menu.”
What kind of drinks will you be doing?
We’re going to have beer and wine. Mostly local beers, a couple domestic bottles, just because people want their Corona sometimes, and I’m not going to tell them they can’t have it. Marble’s just up the street, so I definitely want to feature them. We’ll rotate the beers seasonally. For coffee we’ll have Villa Myriam, which is a local roaster. I love them.
Can my vegan and my gluten free friends find something to eat at The Acre?
Absolutely. Most things that aren’t vegan can be made vegan. And even things that aren’t gluten free, we’ll probably be able to make something for you. That’s the great think about from-scratch cooking: everything’s made to order.