Chefs Are Bypassing the Farmers' Market for the Farm

CC BY 2.0. Oakley Originals -- Harvesting lettuce

Rather than compete for the same pretty market vegetables, the newest locavore trend is to go straight to the source.

There was a time when sourcing ingredients at the farmers' market was seen as the epitome of local, seasonal eating. The restaurateurs who did it were at the forefront of an exciting new movement that embraced farmers and sustainable food production methods. But soon everyone started doing it, and competing for the same heirloom carrots, organic kale, and baby zucchini at the market lost its lustre. Chefs began to question whether there was a way to take farm-to-table eating to the next level.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Dunn describes a movement among chefs to establish closer ties with farmers and buy whatever they're growing, even if it wouldn't meet market standards. Some are buying land and starting their own farms to provide ingredients for their restaurants. Dunn describes this as "farm-to-table 2.0." Going straight to the source enables chefs to provide a menu that is more aligned with seasonal offerings and can accommodate whatever the farmers are needing to sell. It's unpredictable, but it's more flexible:

"It’s one thing for a restaurant to slap some locally grown kale on the menu and call itself farm-to-table, or to refuse to serve strawberries in winter as a nod to seasonality; it’s quite another to shape the menu according to the quirks and vicissitudes of an actual farm."

Dunn gives the example of Matthew Accarrino, chef at SPQR in San Francisco, who has developed a close relationship with farmer Peter Jacobsen. Accarrino uses whatever Jacobsen grows, sometimes asking for unusual crops like finger limes and habenada peppers, and making use of cover crops (a mix of arugulas, mustard greens, pea shoots and bell beans) in salads.

Restaurateur Kristin Canty of Concord, Massachusetts, began raising her own animals, every part of which is used by chef Charlie Foster in Canty's restaurant, called Woods Hill.

"Beef tartare, Bolognese sauce and charcuterie are some of the ways Mr. Foster works his way through entire pigs and cows. 'That structure, though it may seem limiting, is actually extremely liberating because there’s a larger purpose to why I’m serving what I’m serving,' he said. To make even better use of all the 'off cuts' and trim, Ms. Canty and Mr. Foster recently opened a Mexican restaurant called Adelita, where these flavorful bits come tucked inside tacos."

The really wonderful thing about this new evolution of farm-to-table eating is how it tackles the issue of food waste. When chefs are willing to work with whatever a farmer has to offer, and use every part of a vegetable or animal, it creates an eating experience that's as kind to the environment as it is delicious. Perhaps most importantly, it gives long-term, unconditional support to farmers, who are no longer subjected to the aesthetic whims of market buyers and can pursue less profitable crops and growing methods, knowing they'll be bought and appreciated -- kind of like a CSA share on a restaurant level.