On the bustling stretch of Battleground Avenue, where it meets Horse Pen Creek Road, there is a former Waffle House that is now a pale shadow of its former self.
Tessa Farm to Fork opened in October 2015 and had a bit of a rocky start, with a couple of chefs and managers coming and going. But with Chef Caleb Smallwood at the helm, this tiny eatery may have finally found its groove. The site of our latest, Triadfoodies Chef’s Table, was a sold out event, featuring six courses of locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients.
Chef Smallwood came into his career somewhat inadvertently, as he calls it his “backup career plan.” It all started when he attended Appalachian State and began doing dishes at The Eseeola Lodge.
“It was a part-time job,” Smallwood said. “I washed dishes for a season, moved up from there and went on to other resorts and restaurants for a number of years while supplementing in the off-season with some landscaping and photography work.”
In 2011, Smallwood began working for the 1618 Restaurant Group, where he further honed his skills, cooked on some food trucks and eventually took a detour to focus on his photography.
“I went to Randolph Community College to do their photojournalism program, and I really thought that was going to be my path,” he said. “But then I found out I was going to have a child and decided freelance photography might not be the best option for a father.”
Through some random connections a year and a half ago, he found his new home at Tessa. Smallwood said there were some earlier growing pains when he started at Tessa.
“When I got there, one of the first issues we were having is that there wasn’t a lot of direction,” Smallwood said. “Not that the team didn’t know how to produce quality food, but that they didn’t understand what it took to deal with local agriculture and back up what it means to be Tessa Farm to Fork.”
Smallwood said over the past 18 months, he even had to dial himself back.
“I’ve come to realize at lunch, people want sandwiches and burgers and maybe a seasonal entree,” he said. “So they can come in and get back to their day.”
He said dinner is a lot more fun. “I don’t like being tied down,” he said. “With the way we get our ingredients we use, it allows that creative avenue for me. I really enjoy that sort of challenge in this restaurant model.”
Smallwood doesn’t exactly like to call himself executive chef, even though that’s pretty much what he is.
“The morning crew rotates with the evening crew and there’s only a couple of people cooking in there,” he said. “Formalities aren’t really our thing at Tessa.” What is Smallwood’s thing, then?
True, small-batch, farm-to-table cooking. He designs his menu around what’s available and being brought in during the “weekly blast” by his local farmers.
Menus are updated often and if you’re feeling especially adventurous, you can order the Chef’s Plate, which basically puts you at Smallwood’s whim for your dining experience. Of course, that’s what all of us got to enjoy at our Chef’s Table. Six courses of Chef’s Plates.
Gate City Harvest zucchini with tomatoes, orange, Harmony Ridge Farms peppers, citrus and balsamic
This was a light and refreshing gazpacho. Quite different from others I’ve had in that, it wasn’t so much a puree, but the vegetables had been sweated down a bit, yet still country. It was nearly ceviche-like but without the seafood. Delicious.
Yellowfin and Plum
Yellowfin tuna with Harmony Ridge
plums in a ceviche with radishes,
peaches and micro greens
Speaking of ceviche…This was another fairly light course that had an Asian-feel with the sesame oil and cilantro with a bit of a bite from peppers.
Blueberry Spare Ribs
Hickory Nut Gap spare ribs with chipotle harissa dry- rub, Summerfield Farms
blueberry barbeque sauce
Now we are getting into some meatier portions, low and slow is the way Chef Smallwood said he likes to go. These ribs, he called them “finger-pops,” had terrific flavor impact, just tender enough.
Pork Belly and Cold Smoked Scallop
Hickory Nut Gap Pork Belly topped
with a seared diver scallop with a
honeysuckle cream sauce and rosemary
Did your mouth water there? Everything about this dish was delightful. The pork belly and scallops were both cooked perfectly. Smallwood said he preserved the honeysuckles from a local farm in a sugared vodka base. The cream sauce with the cashews and rosemary worked with all of it. It was my favorite dish of the night and fellow diner Scott Fancett agreed and said, “the flavors are dancing in my mouth.”
Brisket and Wahoo
Summerfield Farms Beef Brisket and
North Carolina Butter poached
Wahoo served in a light broth, with
chickpeas, Gate City Harvest carrots,
roasted celery and fried shallots
Served in a pho-type broth, the brisket was very tender, like pot roast. The chickpeas were an interesting component as well. This dish reminded me of a Mediterranean version of a cassoulet but with a lighter broth. This may have been my first time having Wahoo, which is a mild-tasting fish that reminds me of albacore. Nice as a summer “stew” and not too heavy.
Pound Cake with Maple Pecan Peach Ice Cream
Very simple and light. The cake and the ice cream were both dusted with pecans and garnished with sweet mint from the garden. A nice, delicate finale.
Our diners also got to hear from local farmer, Aubrey Cupit, of Gate City Harvest in Summerfield. “We’re lucky to work with Tessa because they’re one of the few restaurants in Greensboro that do a large volume of local sourcing, around 80 percent,” he said. “Where most local restaurants do about 50 percent.” He added, “Caleb’s very talented. Sometimes he has to wait to build his menu or even change it up if something isn’t available or if it has been too rainy for something like squash.”
To really enjoy what Tessa has to offer, Smallwood said there’s no time like the present with the season’s incredibly bountiful harvest.
“It’s an exciting time right now in the Piedmont,” he said. “All the stuff I grew up on, all the squash, tomatoes, cucumber, corn….all the colors. It’s a fun time to build pretty plates of food that are nourishing and refreshing.”
Smallwood told his Chef’s Table guests, “The type of cuisine here at Tessa, being farm-to-table and supporting our local farms, that’s very meaningful to me.”
Tessa Farm to Fork is open dinner Tuesday-Saturday, lunch Monday-Thursday brunch/lunch Friday-Sunday. tessagreensboro.com
Kristi Maier is a food writer, blogger and cheerleader for all things local who even enjoys cooking in her kitchen, though her kidlets seldom appreciate her efforts.