Monday, February 1, 2010

Mr. Farmer, meet Mr. Chef

Before 'Farm to Table', 'Farm to Fork' or whatever buzz word is being thrown around at the moment can become a reality there is a relationship between the farmer and the chef that must develop. We find it humorous that 'farm to table' has become so cliché that we are looking for new words to name this simple concept: A Chef sourcing local food. Well, sourcing GOOD local food.

The food The Chef serves has many stories. The story of the farmer. The story of the animal. The story of it's life on a pasture. The story of its arrival to my kitchen. Stop! How did it get to my kitchen in the first place?

One Friday evening at 6pm, about 8 months ago, right after I had to fire my sous chef, two men walked through the back door to my kitchen. They just stood there for a few minutes, not saying anything. I didn't recognize them and for sure I had never met them in my life. I was wiping down the pass after putting out some courses for a 6 top. Fridays are not normally a one man show in any kitchen. If they are, someone is not happy...and that day, that someone was me.

I ignored them as they stood there silent. What were they waiting for?, I wondered. The micros printed out a new order.
"I have some wild blueberries for you," the man shouted over the sound of the printer,"50 pounds of them!"
I said nothing.
"We're a friend of so and so...".
"Are they free?" (I was joking, kind of...)

I fired the appetizers on B1 and another ticket rolled in. I'm thinking to myself that I'm a nice guy but these two are really beginning to make me angry.

"Nope. And I've got some fresh local fish for you. The best. But you'll need to order at least 30# of fillets a week."

I couldn't make this up if I wanted to. I'll save you from the rest of the dialogue that included a few more things I needed to do in this man's opinion. I told them as politely as I could that they'd need to come back or at least call me later on down the road. When? How about between 2 and 4? Seriously. Or on my 'day off'. They started to leave and when I said I'd buy the blueberries (why not?) they blew me off and walked out, without selling me the blueberries.

Now, why would someone walk into a kitchen during a Friday PM service with 50# of blueberries on the back steps when what they really wanted to talk to me about was fish? We talked a few months later over the phone (me sitting on the tailgate of my truck on a beautiful Virginia spring day between services) and we laughed about that night he came in. He learned a lot from that encounter, a little of what not to do and more importantly, a lot of what NOT to do.

So why did he walk into the kitchen without so much as even introducing himself? Because he thought he had the best and only product like this to be found. But guess what? Not true. Chefs can always find it 'better' and cheaper if they want to. It's too easy.

Either way, I now serve this man's fish and he is a great friend of mine. We didn't see eye to eye that day and even if circumstances had been different I highly doubt his fish would have made it into my refrigerator. And I don't recommend his approach!

When is the right time to approach a chef? Well, that may depend on the chef. I can tell you that some chefs are not at all interested in you or your story. Some chefs could care less about local food no matter what the cost or quality is. You will never be able to deliver 35 whole beef tenderloins the way a big company can. You will never be able to supply 40 perfect shanks for that private event on Thursday. Or will you? The Farmer has a great vantage point and his guidelines are dead on.

I would like to add a few things:
  • Do you (the farmer) know what kind of food I serve?
  • Have you even looked at my menu? You would be served well to look at the prices?
  • Do you know that I might do things to your product that you might not understand, like vacuum seal it in a plastic bag and immerse it in a water bath? That maybe I might glue it to Joe's beef? Or cure it and stuff it into a sheep casing?
  • My time is limited. Sometimes I work 6 days a week and take calls on my 'day off' so I can get ahead when I get 'back' to work.
  • Chefs have families too and most of us make a lot less than you might assume.
  • Chefs think about food cost in their sleep. You should know how much your product is worth and be willing to back it up with consistency and availability.
  • Do you know the market? Why does your product stand out among the rest?
  • If and when I try your pork or beef or lamb, I am secretly hoping it will be the best I have ever tasted, but that doesn't mean it will be. Can you take criticism? Believe me, all Chef's know it's hard!
  • Invite me to the farm. The first time I saw a pasture full of pigs I was jealous and thought I picked the wrong career! But it was just pure excitement because I'd never seen so many happy animals in one place. I love doing what I do and seeing something like that is an integral part of living and involving my life in it. My wife and daughter went with me...
Personally, I have a soft spot for farmers (thank you Grandpa) but that doesn't mean I can afford to carry your product solely because it's local or grass fed or 'organic'. I can't imagine I'll be finding any local olive oil as good as I have now (which is not remotely local)...nor do I think 'farm to table' is or should be anything out of 'Brave New World' territory either. Really, if you think about it, it's the relationship between Farmers and Chefs that are new. Passionate farmers and passionate chefs will always have something to talk about...even if it's not about business.


  1. I just love your blog!!

    Found you on Twitter and decided to check out your blog... this entry about your friend walking in through the back door to sell fish is just the best!

    It really illustrates the issues which Chefs face and how difficult it is for Farmers to make a meaningful connection with Chefs, for all the fuss about Farm to Fork (or what you want to call it).

    Great stuff, I really encourage you to keep writing!

    All the best,

    twitter - @MarioCWK

  2. Mario,
    Thank you for reading. I will check out your site!