Local chef brings farm-to-table sustainability and cuisine to downtown Corpus Christi by spotlighting area vendors and farms
For Paula Szczepanek, crafting a menu starts with the ingredients. The owner and head chef at Farmacy Grill sources most of her ingredients from local vendors and farms, highlighting a dedication to sustainable, farm-to-table cuisine. Every meal is an adventure at Farmacy Grill. The rotating menu plays up what’s in season, often letting the ingredients drive. “The menu lets me do what I want,” Szczepanek said. “It’s driven by what’s available and also where.”
On a balmy January day, the chalkboard reflected a traditional seasonal offering: a take on new year’s black-eyed peas, the Hoppin’ John, featuring smoked sausage from Boarri Craft. “What I like about getting stuff locally is that it has a shorter time to sit around – it’s less time to get to the table. It still has those nutrients. It’s still beautiful. And it’s sustainable,” Szczepanek said. Scribbled next to the menu, a list highlighted all the vendors and ingredients sourced by Szczepanek, including eggs from Edelen Farms, panela from Knolle Dairy Farms, and lion’s mane and pink oyster mushrooms from Mario’s Mushroom Farm.
Szcezpanek takes farm-to-table one step further, with the farm literally steps away from the table. Metal shelves house in-house grown microgreens, courtesy of Bay Greens. The sprouts hadn’t peeked out of the soil yet, as they were just being installed that warm January day, but soon diners will be able to see, literally, where their food comes from. “It’s the first working farm in a restaurant in Corpus – maybe all of Texas,” Szczepanek quipped. When creating a menu item, Szczepanek looks for a good balance of flavors. “You want that umami; you want all the flavors to play off one another: you’ve got to have that sweet, that spicy, that salty,” she said. “You also have to think about textures, too. You get to a certain point where you start asking: does it need something crunchy? That’s how I go about creating a dish from the bottom up,” she added, smiling from another table after serving four decidedly instagrammable and dynamic dishes.
Bay Green’s microgreens add a pop of color to decadent, melt-in-your-mouth bone marrow and lion’s mane mushrooms from Mario’s Mushroom Farm with bacon jam. House-made butternut squash ketchup is paired with fries and a thick burger piled high with pickled red onions, grilled peppers, and rich Knolle Dairy Farm’s panela. Pickled okra, sitting on top of a bun from USS Chefs, gives the plate a burst of acidity. Szczepanek’s take on the seasonal, comforting and hearty Hoppin’ John is peppered with a bite of spice from Boarri Craft smoked sausage. Spicy pecans pop with flavor, adding another layer of flavor to Belgian waffles paired with sweet apple compote and luscious dulce de leche. The burger and waffles are mainstays of Farmacy’s menu, Szczepanek says. But even those reflect what is available locally. “You can’t really change brunch that much. I did try a rhubarb compote, and I was so excited to find a Texas rhubarb,” she said. “But for the most part, the menu components stay the same for brunch. You have your mainstays. However, what’s available really drives the dinner menu. It changes almost daily.”
Farmacy Grill joined the culinary scene in downtown Corpus Christi in August. Szczepanek now leases the former South Beach Grill location on Chaparral Street, but the Maryland native is no stranger to the culinary world. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and served as the executive chef for the Corpus Christi Independent School District for nine years. “I wanted to be downtown because I think it’s coming back. This is where the action is, and there’s so many things to do,” she said. Up next for Szczepanek? Adding a bar to Farmacy Grill, which will also spotlight local offerings. “A bar is what drives revenue. It’s the moneymaker,” she said. “But, while I can’t have a bar based solely on local spirits, I’d love to highlight distilleries around the area like Aerodrome.” A prescription to Farmacy Grill features elevated but accessible cuisine, with local ingredients shining as the cornerstone of every beautifully crafted dish. And it’s one that’s worth refilling week, after week, after week.