The sun-drenched South Austin space where Erin Wade set up her salad-focused restaurant Vinaigrette once housed a greasy old Pig Stand fast-food joint. That irony isn’t lost on someone who serves up greens for a living, but not in the smug way you might expect. Wade says getting too hung up about “bad food” and “good food” just makes people miserable. “In the past, healthy eating was more about deprivation,” she says. “Enjoying food was absent from the discourse. We should think about what we can add to our diets instead of what we shouldn’t eat.”
With Vinaigrette, Wade didn’t set out to single-handedly fix the American diet—she was just really into salad. She’d studied environmental science, public policy and English at Harvard, dabbled in publishing in New York as an intern at Harper’s Bazaar and studied fashion design in Milan, but none of those fields did it for her like farming. Burnt out from city life, she moved to Santa Fe in 2003 to work 10 acres of land her parents had bought years before but never used. She ate what she grew—bringing to her salads a reverence for food that she’d learned in Italy. It wasn’t long before all this activity rekindled a dormant dream to start a restaurant.
She opened the Santa Fe edition of Vinaigrette in 2008—having fun with her veggies by dreaming up salads like the All Kale Caesar! and The Nutty Pear-Fessor. But her real innovations were behind the counter. Wade set up the operation from the get-go as a closed-loop system, meaning she grew the vegetables, turned them into meals, then composted the scraps back into the soil. “When you’re growing, you get obsessed with making soil out of garbage,” she says. “Walt Whitman wrote about how Earth ‘grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,’ and most of us aren’t tapping into that cycle.”
Before she could worry about sustainability, though, Wade had to make a farm that could sustain even the tiniest sign of life. Growing in the arid environment of New Mexico meant a lot of fussing over the soil with techniques like vermiculture composting (letting worms help out) and double digging (loosening two layers of ground for better drainage and aeration). She chose to work without the aid of tractors or other heavy equipment that could compact the clay-based ground. “There’s a reason we make adobe bricks out of dirt in New Mexico,” she says.
These efforts paid off. Though Wade knew nothing about restaurants when she started, the first Vinaigrette did so well in Santa Fe that she opened an Albuquerque branch in 2012. She launched the Austin edition in early 2016. “There are a lot of juice bars and yoga [studios] in Austin, but not a lot of healthy restaurants, so that’s a niche we could fill,” she says.
Opening any new location is a commitment, but Wade went a step further by buying 20 acres in nearby Bastrop. The land will yield its first crop for the restaurant this spring—reducing what Wade’s had to source from Brothers Produce. She also plans to build cabins and composting toilets on the property for agricultural workshops and “tech-detox” retreats.
After fretting endlessly over soil health and the like in New Mexico, Wade—who divides her time between Santa Fe and Austin—finds the new headaches of farming in Central Texas a refreshing change of pace. “It’s hot as balls in Texas and there are insects, pests, weeds, droughts and floods, but the soil on our farm is incredible bottomland loam…so we’re starting with something much healthier than what we have in New Mexico.” Despite the better soil, she still practices many of the same sustainable techniques in both states, and has some other new ideas up her sleeve. She’s bringing in livestock for the protein side of her menu and wants to develop a way for restaurants to cooperatively buy and prepare their produce to save money. “Most farmers can sell to consumers for higher prices with a CSA,” she says. “So smaller restaurants have to pay more and get blamed when they pass the price on to the customer.”
In her quest for the best ingredients out there, Wade has come to find that terms like “sustainable,” “organic,” “humanely raised” and others have lost some of their meaning from overuse, though she’s on board with the principles and approaches behind them. “Seasonal” is another concept that she takes to heart, just with one small caveat: winter. While Vinaigrette strives to be seasonal (indeed, there’s nothing more seasonal than Wade’s ability to pluck a plant from one of her farms and dish it up hours later), she finds it unrealistic to force customers to give up, say, apples, just because it’s May. “Many people are trying to eat seasonally, and with good reason, but Americans are used to having certain foods year-round,” says Wade. “I’m interested in where we can meet in the middle, to make people feel better than when they came in without feeling guilty for having a tomato.”
Correction: In the original article, the farms listed where Vinaigrette sources produce were incorrect. We apologize for any confusion.
By Steve Wilson • Photography by Melanie Grizzel
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