Growing Relationships: Farmers, Chefs—and Vegetables
Why local matters at restaurants too.
When Gordon and I started Ten Mothers Farm, selling to chefs felt like a natural fit. We first met while working for Alice Waters of the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Each week, Chez Panisse sends a van up to a farm an hour north, loads it up with fresh produce, and returns to the restaurant. Chefs shape the menu around whatever produce the farmers harvested that week. If it's peak parsley season, they make salsa verde to go with new potatoes and grilled steak. If there's a glut of cabbage, they braise it to go alongside chicken Kiev. The menu changes daily, the cooks are inspired by the produce, and the food is so good that customers never complain.
Bob Cannard, the farmer for Chez Panisse, is the first farmer we worked for after we left our city lives. Between working for him and for Alice, we got a firsthand look at the benefits of a close chef-farmer relationship. So when we started our own farm, we sought to have this kind of close relationship with a restaurant or two. Three years later, we feel lucky to have connected with some truly outstanding restaurants in our area-but we've also learned just how challenging it can be to work with chefs.
At this point, "farm-to-table" restaurants are ubiquitous. It seems like every chef has jumped on the fresh-and-local bandwagon. Even large chain restaurants claim to be serving up farm-fresh fare. But as a farmer who's trying to sell produce to chefs, I can tell you that you'd be shocked to find out how few of these restaurants are actually buying a significant quantity of ingredients locally.
I understand why it's hard for restaurants to buy from local farms. Chefs need a consistent supply of popular vegetables at a price they can afford. Farmers can get a higher price selling at a farmers' market or through a CSA than they can selling to a restaurant, so restaurants rarely get first dibs on popular vegetables. Restaurants often can't pay that higher price and still make a profit, and farmers often can't sell at a lower price and still make a living. If restaurants raise their prices to reflect the cost of buying from local farms, then customers complain. We all want food to be cheap.
My point here is not to place blame on restaurants-they're small businesses, running on tight margins-but to note how challenging it is for local farmers and chefs to work together. So, what do we do about it? Ultimately, the customer is always right, and if the customer demands local, seasonal fare, then restaurants will rise to the occasion. Ask your favorite restaurant where they buy their meat and produce from. Kindly encourage them to buy from local farms and explain why it matters to you.
Seek out restaurants that are already committed to buying local. Their prices may be a bit higher, but usually their food is that much better-plus, you can rest easy knowing your dollars will stay in your community. In towns and cities across our country, there are restaurants that are truly committed to sourcing their food locally. These chefs seek out the best ingredients grown and raised in their community and pay a fair price for them. Find the chefs in your town that are doing this work, eat their food, and shower them with praise. They'll make sure you always eat well.
If you're in our neck of the North Carolina woods, you can typically find our produce on the menus at a few local establishments: Lantern, The Durham, Rose's, Snap Pea, and Panciuto. We're thankful to work with these brave chefs who appreciate the quality of our produce, who push us to try growing new things, and who understand that the magic of good food begins in the field.