Farmers and Chefs Team to Serve Fresh Local Food

Farmers team up with Chef Rick Bayless and the Chefs Collaborative to use in-season, fresh local food for the meals served in their restaurants.
By Doreen G. Howard
October/November 2003
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Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago receives fresh local food including a mesclun mix from grower James Welch of Avalanche Organics in Viola, Wisconsin.
PHOTO: GLENN KAUPERT
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Market growers and chefs are teaming up to serve fresh, local fare in restaurants across the country.

Fresh ingredients constitute the hallmark of great cuisine, and top-ranked professional chefs take them very seriously, going to great lengths to procure the best for their culinary creations. In 1993, a group of like-minded chefs founded a national organization called the Chefs Collaborative to promote restaurant offerings based on such ingredients—fresh, local, in-season and sustainably raised.

"You can't have great cuisine without using great local ingredients," says Rick Bayless, Chefs Collaborative board member and chef-owner of the Frontera Grill and Topolobampo Restaurant in Chicago. The menus at his establishments include direct references to and tantalizing hints of the links he has established with local farmers and market gardeners. Among the offerings: "Maple Creek Farm pork loin in dark, spicy, honeyed pasilla sauce with mashed butternut squash and wilted spinach;" "charcoal-seared Crawford Farm lamb simmered with guajillo chilies, roasted tomatoes and garlic;" and "braised Swan Creek Farm rock hen with roasted apples, guajillo chilies and cilantro."

All of the Collaborative's chefs (more than 150) reach out to their suppliers—market gardeners, pastured-meat producers, foragers, shepherds and fishermen—in similar ways to form partnerships that also promote fair wages for the growers, support the local economy and encourage sustainable growing practices.

"We seduce the customer first with flavor, and then we tell them about the ingredients and from where they come," Bayless says. As a result, foods now being grown regionally for his restaurants, which specialize in authentic Mexican dishes, include the menu meats, plus chipotle peppers, andouille sausage, tomatoes, onions and squash.

Bayless has taken the chef-producer relationship even further by setting up the Frontera Farmer Foundation, which provides capital development grants to small, sustainable farms serving his and other area restaurants and farmer's markets. The long-term benefits of such efforts, Bayless says, include direct participation in grower expansion, access to new and unusual crops, and a blurring of chef and grower roles for the benefit of all.

Nurturing the Ties Between Chefs and Farmers

Most chefs in the Collaborative, including 2002 James Beard Foundation award-winner Greg Higgins of Higgins Restaurant and Bar in Portland, Oregon, insist on personal links to their suppliers. They visit the farms, learn the growers' techniques and become friends.

"I look for almost a kindred relationship between plants and growers," Higgins says. "Their products seem to have something extra." Among the extraordinary ingredients he can feature in his restaurant as a consequence of these ties are Oregon hazelnuts, Rogue River blue cheese and Pacific Northwest wild mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, truffles and huckleberries.

The wild-gathered foods are purchased from Lars Norgren, whose wild-crafting business is called Peak Forest Fruit. "Ours is a mutually beneficial relationship," Norgren says. "Greg gets ingredients he couldn't find elsewhere when he wants them, and they're fresh—only a couple of hours old. And he makes it possible for me to pay as much as I can to the pickers, who know where to find the best wild crops."

In Chicago, Bayless says of his Foundation work, "We consider the farmers who grow for us our partners, and the health of their business is important to the health of ours." The first growers to benefit from a Foundation grant, in 2000, were Bill Warner and Judy Hageman, a husband-and-wife team of specialty market gardeners. They operate Snug Haven Farm at Bellville, Wisconsin.

Among the food items they grow and sell to area restaurants throughout the winter months is fresh baby spinach, produced in heated hoophouses, some of which were paid for with Foundation assistance.

"Frontera prepaid for half their winter tomato order so we were able to build three more houses, making us sustainable," Warner says. "And, we were able to hire employees and pay them a decent wage. In time, the business has become secondary; it's the relationship that counts."

Warner and Hageman, along with members of a cooperative of specialty growers called Home Grown Wisconsin, supply Bayless and 40 other gourmet restaurants in Chicago, and Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, year-round. The co-op growers pool their crops for weekly deliveries to the various restaurants; their operations range from a half-acre raspberry patch to a 50-acre vegetable farm. They produce such items as heirloom tomatoes; baby greens, including magenta lamb's quarter; crosnes (Watch for an upcoming story on this rare root crop. —MOTHER); winter squash; berries; specialty melons; peppers; herbs; and antique apples. Eighty percent of the offering is certified Organic; the rest is certified Naturally Grown.

Co-op manager Rink DaVee, who also owns and operates Shooting Star Farm at Mineral Point, Wisconsin, says Home Grown Wisconsin members don't have to worry about finding markets, loading and unloading, or delivering their goods because the co-op assumes those tasks for them. "Our growers are good at providing variety and trying new things, and that inspires the chefs," he says. "The (chef-grower) partnership lets the growers do their thing. We get premium prices because of the quality we provide and, in turn, the farm has become connected to the restaurant menus." An added bonus; he says, is chefs and restaurant patrons now are more accustomed to and appreciative of local, seasonal foods.

New and Unusual Crops

Susan Spicer, another Collaborative member and the award-winning chef at Bayona restaurant in New Orleans' French Quarter, says one of the best aspects of her chef-producer relationships is the increase in new food products it has spawned. At her restaurant, Spicer features locally inspired cuisine drawn from the indigenous foods of the Louisiana Delta.

Local producers provide everything from pecans to rabbits to Creole mustard for her restaurant fare; she's also a regular shopper at New Orleans' Crescent City Farmers Market, where she seeks out the freshest, local food items, including wild-collected mushrooms and blue crabs caught from Gulf waters.

"The variety of things available in the last five to 10 years is phenomenal," she says. "Our farmer's market commonly has things like `Bright Lights' Swiss chard and edible flowers. When I suggested golden beets, the farmers grew them, too."

Chefs Become Growers

Over time, the partnerships between chefs and growers often start to blur. "The chefs have a real interest in how we grow things," says Home Grown Wisconsin co-op manager DaVee, noting that sometimes, the chefs even end up with gardens of their own.

Higgins, in Oregon, is an avid traveler who loves to eat foods of the regions he explores, find the local crops and bring back seeds to his grower-partners. At his home, he grows his discoveries, too, in his own test garden; eventually, some of the more unusual crops end up on his restaurant's menu. Sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes), purple sprouting broccoli and fava beans grow in Higgins' garden, as do 'Cox's Orange Pippin' antique apples, plums and gooseberries—all fruits used in season for sauces and desserts at the restaurant.

Other chefs plant kitchen gardens, too. Spicer grows her own herbs and arugula for Bayona, and Bayless set up an extensive indoor garden in his basement where he grows cilantro and various greens under lights in winter; outdoors in summer, he concentrates on chiles and tomatillos.

Several years ago, Tracey Vowell, the managing chef at Frontera Grill, bought nine acres near Chicago where she has begun to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers for the two Bayless restaurants, following sustainable practices.

"Rick is a very generous man and has let me develop a plan that slowly phases me out of the restaurant as I develop my skills as a farmer," Vowell says. She has made friends with the grower-partners, and they have welcomed her as a fellow farmer with as much enthusiasm as they did when she was a customer. After more than 14 years as a chef, she plans to become a full-time grower next season. Her garden already provides pea shoots, tomatoes, tomatillos, root vegetables, chiles, herbs and edible flowers to Bayless. Next year, she wants to grow huitlacoche, commonly known as corn smut and considered a great delicacy in Mexico, where it is known as corn mushroom.

Winter Tomatoes in Wisconsin

Bayless' award-winning Mexican cuisine is based on huge quantities of fresh tomatoes for salsa; sauces and other dishes. For a time during the winter months, he bought from wholesalers who got the tomatoes from Texas, Florida and California—that is, until Wisconsin-based market growers Warner and Hageman provided him with 50 pounds of frozen, homegrown plum tomatoes to test.

"We heard that freezing tomatoes keeps their flavor," Warner says. Bayless agreed to try the produce and ended up placing a weekly standing order for 600 pounds to be delivered from the end of October to mid-May.

Warner and Hageman contracted with neighboring farmers to help them grow enough tomatoes organically to meet the order; about 20,000 pounds are harvested at their peak annually and stored in large industrial freezers. "We don't pay the farmers until we sell the tomatoes," Warner says, "but when the tomatoes are sold, the growers get premium prices. We told Bayless that it takes more space to grow the 'Amish Paste' plants so our growers would need more money, and he readily agreed." After three seasons of experimenting with various plum varieties, 'Amish Paste' has become the variety of choice (see "Cream of the Crops," June/July 2003). It's thin-skinned and meaty in texture with low-moisture content—perfect for Mexican cuisine.

At Frontera Grill, managing chef Vowell puts the frozen tomatoes in hot water to loosen their skins for removal. Then, the skinless tomatoes are placed in a large stockpot and braised until they barely start to caramelize, which brings out the sugars and heightens the flavor. The braised tomatoes are used like fresh ones for various salsas, sauces and entrees.


Doreen Howard is a freelance writer who specializes in stories on food and sustainable gardening.


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