On a recent summer morning in Aquinnah, Daniel Sauer was tending to a tomato plant with one hand and holding the hand of his 18-month-old son, Amos, in the other. This was a typical day for Mr. Sauer, a balancing act of farming, cooking and family time.
After five years as the chef at the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah, Mr. Sauer decided to spend less time in the kitchen and more time in the field, creating 7a Farm this past spring. Mr. Sauer and his wife, Wenonah Madison Sauer, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), are using the produce Mr. Sauer harvests to cater private events and sell at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market.
He has a small plot of raised beds in his backyard in Wampanoag Tribal Housing and a small field at a friend’s garden down the street; Mr. Sauer said the clay soil made it too difficult for planting his lettuce, potatoes, pole beans, artichokes, radishes, scallions and the like directly into the ground.
The farm’s name, 7a, references the hardiness zone of the Vineyard, meaning the minimum temperature plant life can sustain. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average low for the Island is between zero and five degrees Fahrenheit.
“I’m having so much fun,” Mr. Sauer told the Gazette on a visit to his home of his new venture. “It’s so rewarding to grow your own food.” He first fell in love with growing fruits and vegetables at the Outermost Inn. But now he’s able to cook and have fun “without being chained to a stove all day.”
“It’s not any less work than being a chef, but there’s definitely more flexibility,” Mr. Sauer said about his change from full-time chef to full-time farmer. He hopes to be able to grow food for chefs in the future, growing what they directly need, as he did for himself at the Outermost Inn.
Mr. Sauer was first intrigued by the idea of starting his own farm when he began to meet Island farmers at market. “No farm wanted to deliver to Aquinnah, so I had to go pick everything up,” he said.
As a result, Mr. Sauer formed strong relationships with local farmers, who have supported him from the beginning. “If chefs show a willingness to work with them and show initiative, the farmers like that,” Mr. Sauer said. He pointed, as an example, to the fencing that Mitchell and son Ned Posin from Allen Farm in Chilmark helped him put up in exchange for some cooking.
“I definitely grew up around a certain element of agricultural life, but I didn’t know much about farming except for huge monoculture farming,” Mr. Sauer said about being raised in Billings, Mont. “I grew up with a lot of a lot of kids who were farmers and knew it was a hard life for them. “
Mr. Sauer began cooking in local establishments in high school and continued his education at the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., from which he graduated in 1999.
“I thought I was a hot shot I guess, and got my butt kicked for about a year,” Mr. Sauer said, describing his first job as a line cook at the restaurant Oceana in New York. “It was a very challenging place to work, needless to say, and it was a little over my head.”
After overhearing someone in the restaurant mention a summer position on the Vineyard, Mr. Sauer took the opportunity to go back to basics, relearn things and do it right.
Mr. Sauer cooked under Marco Canora, an acclaimed New York chef and restaurateur, at La Cucina, his restaurant at the Tuscany Inn (now The Fallon) on North Water street in Edgartown. Mr. Canora soon became Mr. Sauer’s culinary mentor, and when summer came to an end, Mr. Canora invited Mr. Sauer to join him at Craft in New York.
But first they went to Mr. Canora’s family’s cooking school in Italy and traveled throughout the country on what Mr. Sauer described as “an amazing month-long culinary experience.”
Mr. Sauer is as patient with his crops as he was during the two and half years he worked his way up the ladder to sous chef at Craft, and then chef de cuisine at Mr. Canora’s restaurant Hearth.
But after years in New York, Mr. Sauer decided to come back with his wife to the Vineyard, where he started at the Outermost Inn. “That was five seasons ago, and two children ago,” Mr. Sauer remembered fondly, speaking of his sons, Amos and Waylon.
Now Mr. Sauer spends his days weeding, planting, preparing for market, and menu planning. “It’s so nice to be able to know exactly how many people you’re going [to serve], what they’re going to eat,” Mr. Sauer said of his private catering. “You know they’re going to be happy with exactly what they get.
“Sometimes people come into a restaurant and they have a little edge to them, they expect it to be perfect, they’re waiting to pounce on the first thing that’s not,” he said. “They’re a little bit more relaxed when we’re on their turf, and poke their heads into the kitchen to ask questions.”
And he welcomes the questions. Mr. Sauer hopes that eaters asking about where their food comes from will become a natural instinct rather than a passing fad. “I’d like to see food — sustainable, local, all those buzz words — become ingrained with average, everyday people,” he said, adding this suggestion: “Maybe if they just buy one thing, go to the farmers’ market and trade out two of your vegetable meals for one local or organic vegetable, and kind of build off that.
“Of all the things they have to think about in life ... it’s a lot easier to just go to the store and not think about what you eat,” he said, adding, however: “The current day food system needs to change, it’s beyond a left wing or right wing thing.”
Mr. and Mrs. Sauer said they’ve been thinking about starting an afterschool program for tribal kids, helping the children set up a small garden and eventually doing a cooking class with them.
Likewise, a storefront and maybe even a restaurant are also possibilities they’re considering.
Chef Sauer considers his departure from the restaurant kitchen only temporary. “Events are great, but it doesn’t match the adrenaline and camaraderie in the kitchen ... I didn’t leave it for good, that’s for sure. It’s a nice break, I would say.
“I’d love to find something that would integrate, something where I could grow and cook on a regular basis,” he said.
His biggest challenge now? “Not having all the answers and not knowing what do all the time,” Mr. Sauer said, leaning down to pull a weed out of one of his beds. “That, and adjusting to the early mornings.”
Pees and fava beans are Mr. Sauer’s favorite crop right now. “It makes you feel like something’s actually going to grow,” he said. “But you have to be confident.”
7a Farm sells produce at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information about the farm, visit 7afoods.com.