Earth and Sky

A former fighter pilot gets his feet back on the ground and hands in the dirt, then finds himself in the kitchen.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

The Garfrerick farm near Pell City, Ala.

The Garfrerick farm near Pell City, Ala.

RECIPE: See the web-exclusive recipe from David Garfrerick for an anti-parasitic supplement for cattle. >>

As a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, David Garfrerick jockeyed a rocket while helping to protect his country. He broke the sound barrier and mastered the art of aircraft carrier takeoffs and landings, piloting a 20-plus-ton jet loaded with ordnance and fuel on and off a football-field-size runway.

“It was a thrill, a challenge,” Garfrerick says, after a little cajoling on the subject. “It’s like being thrown off into the wild, out of control, but it’s a lot of fun.”

But that’s about all you’ll get in the way of description from the mild-mannered former flyboy. He’s no Maverick or Iceman. One has to dig a bit to even learn he graduated from the Naval Academy. And, after piloting F4 Phantoms and the A4 Skyhawks from big boats with names like Nimitz, Roosevelt and Saratoga, he went on to become an executive with Procter & Gamble and Frito-Lay.

“Yeah, it’s just not his style to talk about those things,” says wife, Dede, about her husband and his accomplishments. “It’s not that he’s shy, just quiet and veeery focused,” adding the emphasis with a smile while overlooking their farm—the result of one of Garfrerick’s most recent reinventions of himself.

Garfrerick says he’s always been fascinated by gardening, having raised a variety of vegetables and other plants, even while in the Navy. “I’ve just always loved growing things and wanted some land to retire on, and bought this land, and just started growing things. It got bigger and bigger,” continues Garfrerick about the property near Alpine, Ala., “and at some point, I guess, I just had to start calling it a farm.”

Dede helps manage the cattle and farm, especially with David spending more time at the restaurant.

Dede helps manage the cattle and farm, especially with David spending more time at the restaurant.

All told, he and Dede own about 200 acres of rolling hills, including 80 acres of timber, 80 acres of pasture for his cattle, and about 5 acres of crops and orchard, from which he grows fruits and vegetables. Although it’s not certified organic, because the state of Alabama doesn’t offer such a program, he employs only organic methods learned through various sources, including the sometimes controversial Joel Salatin of Virginia’s Polyface Farm. Garfrerick uses no synthetic pesticides and fertilizes exclusively with manure from his cattle mixed with hay.

“The most important thing,” he says, “is to improve your soil. I add large quantities of compost to the soil every year to continue improving the level of nutrients. The theory … that I find most effective says that healthy plants in healthy soil attract very little pests from the insect and microbiotic world.”

Similarly, the cattle he raises are grass-fed, as well as antibiotic- and hormone-free. He even uses a holistic supplement to ward off parasites. (Click the link for his recipe.)

Garfrerick, who’s originally from neighboring Calhoun County, started working this land in 1994. Shortly thereafter, he began selling his produce and quickly earned a reputation among area chefs as a reliable source for beautiful product with plenty of flavor.

Among his fans is Chris Hastings, chef/owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club in nearby Birmingham. Named the 2012 Best Chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation, one of the most prestigious food organizations in the United States, Hastings began buying produce from Garfrerick shortly after they both went into business. “He brought arguably the best produce that’s come across our threshold here. He’s the gold standard,” says Hastings.

Heirloom tomato salad is one popular dish served at the restaurant when the veggies are in season on the farm.

Heirloom tomato salad is one popular dish served at the restaurant when the veggies are in season on the farm.

At one point, Garfrerick was regularly supplying some 12 restaurants with his produce, doing most of the farming and delivery himself, including planting about 1,500 tomato plants each year by hand—and “loving every second of it,” he says. These days, while he is still involved in managing the farm, two employees—one full-time and one part-time—do most of the hands-on work. That allows Garfrerick to focus on his latest “adventure,” a restaurant he owns and runs in Oxford, Ala., about a 45-minute drive from his home and farm.

Like the owner himself, Garfrerick’s Café is understated. It’s located in a nondescript shopping center just off the main drag in this town of 21,000, about 90 miles west of Atlanta. Opened in 2008, the philosophy behind the restaurant, Garfrerick says, is that “fresh, healthy food can be delicious.

“But we’re not really trying to push people into extreme health … because it actually drives some people away. We want them to know where the food came from and what they’re eating, and want to show them how it can be delicious—how it can be really awesome.”

The plan has worked. Serving moderately priced food for lunch and dinner, the café is a favorite among locals. Word has spread beyond the city limits too, as travelers in the know frequently make the 5-minute drive off Interstate 20 to enjoy Garfrerick’s cooking, as well as his farm-raised veggies, fruits and beef.

Although he sells foods from other purveyors, Garfrerick’s produce and meat have a starring role at his café. (As a result, it’s no longer regularly sold to other restaurants, because according to Garfrerick, there’s not enough to go around.) In the spring, the café features a tomato salad with peas, sweet corn and goat cheese (among a few other ingredients). In fall and winter, greens, radishes and eggplant are included with restaurant main courses of seafood, beef and poultry. Even cocktails feature the farm’s produce, including a martini made with apple, celery and ginger juice. Beef raised on the farm is ground and used in meatloaf and burgers.

AUDIO: Click the play button to hear David talk about the hidden ingredients in many restaurant dishes.

[audio:|titles=David Garfrerick on Food’s Hidden Ingredients]
Click here to listen on mobile devices

It’s a natural fit for a farmer who feels passionate about what comes off his land, but a crazy decision just the same, says Hastings, with whom Garfrerick cooked before opening his own restaurant. “I told him, ‘Don’t!’” Hastings says, only half-jokingly. “‘You’re an ex-fighter pilot and [former] executive of major corporations. What are you thinking? After all that hard work, and you’ve saved up all that money, now you’re going to throw that treasure into a black hole called a restaurant?’

“But I knew he was committed and that anything he does, he does very well.” The result, continues Hastings, is a restaurant that’s “warm and inviting, where the food is delicious. It is a reflection of Dave, and therefore I love it.”

When queried on the same topic, Garfrerick quietly chuckles. “You try one adventure after another in life,” he explains, “and then you eventually find something that feeds you and makes you feel like you have a purpose and value.”

It just happens that what feeds that value in this fighter-pilot-cum-executive-cum-farmer-turned-restaurateur is feeding other people. He says he runs the farm and restaurant “because I like making people happy, providing an environment for people to engage with each other, [where they can] have fun and get nourished.”

He admits that running the two enterprises presents their own challenges, but, he thinks, they’re also a terrific complement to each other. “If there’s something wrong with the produce,” smiles Garfrerick, “I know who to talk to.”