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farmer-chef connections

Quality and caring: Half a dozen Bay area farmers and chefs share their insights into the secrets of building satisfying and successful relationships

By Lisa M. Hamilton

Jonathan Beard, chef (Bistro Aix): "All chefs care how their ingredients taste," Beard says to me later, "but only some of us care where they come from."
January 17, 2003: Jonathan Beard knows citrus.

He knows satsumas, tangerines--even knows what to do with a fleshy citron or Buddha's hand, the fruit that looks like a petrified sea anemone in shocking yellow. On this sunny morning at the farmers market in San Rafael, California, he knowingly picks through a pile of Meyer lemons. He squeezes gently, sniffs the skins, looks for oils, then starts tossing fruit after fruit in a bag. As it fills up, he gives me the citrus report: last month this farm had unbelievable satsumas, but now they're losing flavor; at this time of year, the next stall over is a better bet.

"This is my favorite market," he says en route to the satsumas. "San Francisco's is okay, but this one's the best: it has the most farmers. That's why I'm here, after all."

Three mornings a week Beard heads to one market or another with his wallet and a dolly, the only tools he needs to build the menu at his San Francisco restaurant, Bistro Aix. As he walks down the aisles, he checks availability--inspects Brussels sprouts, asks Star Route Farm if they have Castlefranco radicchio today. (They don't but suggest another stand, and Beard shakes his head. "Yeah, I know they have it, but yours is the best.")

Leaning over the displays of produce he is scrutinizing yet quick, but as he goes to pay his hawk's eyes turn upward and soften. "Hey, Ed," he says to the man in charge of a mound of citrus. "How're your kids these days?"

Beyond the flashy frisee

Farmer insight: Building chef connections

With more than six decades of experience between them, Stuart Dickson, Peter Martinelli, and Star Route Farms founder Warren Weber know what it takes to start a relationship with a restaurant. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Go find them. Many relationships start when chefs browse farmers markets, but growers can also do the walking. Peter suggests waiting until the height of your season, then collecting a box of your best and literally taking it to the restaurant's (back) door as a free sample.
  • Do your research. The best way to know how a restaurant works is to eat there. Choose a meal that involves some of the things you grow, then do a taste test in your mind. If your carrots are better than the ones they serve, you've found your point of entry. Also, ask chefs what they have trouble finding and try to supply it.
  • Find a niche. Ah yes, the eternal advice, but it worked for Stuart: while most farmers were courting restaurants in San Francisco, he secured accounts in less traveled areas like Oakland, Berkeley and Sacramento. In a saturated market, try restaurants that are new, more remote, or less obvious in terms of cuisine (even sushi restaurants use vegetables).
  • Specialize. Right from the start Warren's success has come largely from his ability to grow delicate greens impeccably. Having an unusual product that you are known for sells not just the product itself, but more ordinary fare. Caution, though: you can get too specialized. As Warren says, "Sure, you can be the best grower around for nettles or miner's lettuce. But at the end of the day, it's hard to base a business on it."
  • Give first. Building a relationship shouldn't require groveling or servitude, but showing a chef your commitment from the start--perhaps by delivering to her door, adapting to his comments on the first few orders--can't help but engender the same. If it doesn't, better to know the score from the get-go and decide whether it's worth it.

Sure, this is business, but it's also pleasure. Each stall brings a new conversation with an old friend; making his way through just the last section of this third aisle takes 25 minutes--half buying, half talking. "All chefs care how their ingredients taste," Beard says to me later, "but only some of us care where they come from."

While Bay Area cuisine increasingly is defined by chefs' attention to ingredients, it's still a relatively new idea. In the early 1970s, a generation of chefs led by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse realized that truly taking advantage of California's agricultural wealth meant going beyond the wholesale companies to the real source: the farmers.

At first the relationships they built centered around growers' ability to provide special foods that the larger marketplace didn't support -- blanched frisee, arugula, baby lettuces. Stuart Dickson was there early on, working first at Star Route Farms in Bolinas and then at his own Heirloom Organic Gardens, in Watsonville. "There was this sense of adventure," he remembers. "The chefs were willing to try lots of different fruits and vegetables, and so as a farmer it was an opportunity to act like an artist. The world of what we grew just kept expanding. Each time we delivered a box to a restaurant, opening it was this explosion of colors and flavors--like opening a new can of paint."

The wholesale market caught on fast, and by the early 1990s distributors had become, as Dickson puts it, "one-stop shopping for everything from fresh turmeric to iceberg lettuce." Many chefs went with that easier route--what they wanted, when they wanted it, delivered to their doors. Still, the committed few realized there was something the distributors could never give them. Two things, in fact.

Quality First

The first is obvious to any farmer. It's quality.

Heidi Krahling, chef and owner of Insalata's, in San Anselmo, says she would goes to the farmers market just to buy peas from Iacopi Farm. She could get the very same Iacopi peas from a broker -- and for a lower price -- but they would have spent a day or two in the cooler. The ones at the market will have been picked that day, a difference she is happy to pay for.

Krahling buys directly from a number of growers, each selected for the superior quality of his or her product. It's the thing she emphasizes over and over in talking about the grower she relies on most, Peter Martinelli. "He is such a good, careful grower that the relationship doesn't require my being flexible about quality. There's never a sense that I must sacrifice something to support him."

"Cook and farmer can hold hands and walk into the sunset together, but without a restaurant full of diners neither of them will make a dime."

In fact, her trust is so great she will buy, as she says, whatever he has to offer. "When he's planning his spring planting he asks me what I want, and I say, 'Anything you've got!'" In return, growers will give Krahling dibs on the first-of-the-season marble stripe tomatoes or deals on an overflow of Romas that ripened all at once.

And the growers win, too. With his crop already placed, Martinelli needs not worry about moving boxes through a warehouse. Instead he focuses on further improving his vegetables' quality. The chefs he supplies tip him off to food trends as they are being born, which means he is first to plant the latest thing – he can corner the market as it develops. These personal relationships also open doors that expand his season. For instance, nettles that he sells to a local cheesemaker mean lucrative wildcrafting during the slow harvests of early spring.

Path of Most Resistance – Most Reward

Of course, there is a reason why most growers and chefs fall back on the wholesale chain: working directly with the other takes a lot of effort. Most chefs are too busy to go out seeking food at farmers markets or calling purveyors for a single product. Likewise, most farmers can't imagine taking half a day several times a week just to drive their product to six different addresses.

And it's not just a matter of time. While chefs relish the incomparable taste of local produce, committing to it like Krahling does requires getting creative--kale, after all, has only so many faces. After cooking, chefs must convince their customers that seasonal offerings truly are more desirable. The Olema Inn's Ed Vigil, who also buys from Martinelli, struggles with his customers' expecting lettuce and tomatoes in winter. He acquiesces, but also offers appropriate equals in hopes of educating through taste: his January menu includes both a house green salad garnished with tomatoes--as good as it can be out of season--and a lentil citrus salad at the peak of its year.

It's not just a business transaction:

"I trust these growers so much, but I also respect and admire them. With small farmers like Peter Martinelli, you see they're doing it all -- planting, watering, harvesting, billing, delivering. When you see them working that hard, you make a commitment to them."

-- Heidi Krahling, chef (Insalata’s)

Farmers pay, too. They must put time in getting to know the chefs--their palettes, the capacity of their walk-in coolers, their schedules, staff size, and style. And then they must adjust. When Martinelli harvests beets he doesn't just take whatever is out there. He picks smaller ones for a first restaurant, big, fat ones for a second, and just greens for a third.

Connections form the core

If this were entirely a business transaction, it would never work--at least not by conventional economics. Each could get a better deal money-wise in the wholesale market -- that's why it exists. But then there's that second product no distributor can supply: personal connection. "That's the core of this whole thing," Krahling explains. "I trust these growers so much, but I also respect and admire them. With small farmers like Martinelli, you see they're doing it all -- planting, watering, harvesting, billing, delivering. When you see them working that hard, you make a commitment to them."

That recognition is worth a lot in a world where big growers continually undercut prices and consumers don't know better than to follow the discount. Chefs like Krahling never haggle over prices because they appreciate the value of food that's grown carefully, with an eye to the food itself and the land that supports it.

Of course, the whole equation balances on a third factor: consumers. Cook and farmer can hold hands and walk into the sunset together, but without a restaurant full of diners neither of them will make a dime. The challenge is one of price. Whether the end result is gourmet or café, the time/money equation of buying local food from small growers means the menu will be more expensive.

Customers in the Bay Area have been trained to appreciate the specialness of such food, an easy task, some would say, considering that the growing season has no end. But it's more than that: people recognize that superiority lies in taste, but also in what —who – they are supporting. Take, for instance, the menu at Bistro Aix. It has two sides: on one, a standard list of bistro favorites; on the other, the ever-changing farmers market menu, dreamed up during Beard's drive from San Rafael back to the restaurant.

Today, one of the things that dreaming conjured was a half lobster dressed with matsutake mushrooms, accompanied by a puree of German butterball potatoes with a Meyer lemon beurre blanc. It sold out. By 8:30, 15 of 16 orders sold (which, for a Thursday night in a restaurant of this size, means it was hot). Working the line, Beard saw the plates coming back wiped clean. So when the 15th order left the kitchen at 8:45, he knew exactly what to do: he called out "86 the lobster," slipped the last one on a plate, slipped out the door, and rewarded himself for both a job well done, and a job worth doing.

Lisa M. Hamilton is a freelance writer from Mill Valley, CA.