January 17, 2003: Jonathan Beard knows citrus.
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."
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
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
- 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
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
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.
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
||"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
It's not just a
"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
Lisa M. Hamilton is a freelance writer from Mill Valley, CA.