Chefs and local farmers often create symbiotic relationships that support sustainable agriculture and give restaurateurs signature dishes that use seasonal produce, which in some cases is grown especially for them.
Chef Aaron French, of the Sunny Side Restaurant in Albany and Berkeley, Calif., details 29 chefs who have such relationships in his new book, “The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook: Local Food, Local Restaurants, Local Recipes.” The profiles of chefs and farmers that they do business with include stories, photos and favorite recipes that highlight the use of fresh local ingredients.
There are times when a chef will shop at a farmers market to sample the goods, but French says building working relationships with farmers has benefits on both sides. “Local food has a lot to do with our human ecology and our connections and interactions with each other,” he says. “I want to know who I’m dealing with.”
Recommendations lead to new connections
It can begin with farmers pitching their produce to chefs or restaurants, but more likely it is the chef who initiates contact after getting a recommendation from a colleague. What evolves affects the business of both, an important consideration when restaurant competition is fierce and farmers can struggle making sustainable agriculture work financially.
Still, chefs make quality-based and taste-based decisions, and having a locally grown product to tout on a website or even a menu offers an important novelty factor and distinguishing flavor or entrée. Farms will grow crops specifically for one restaurant with which they have a relationship, and French says chefs will buy entire plots of seasonal or specialty items.
Food safety is woven into relationships
The farm-chef connection also adds a layer of accountability in a food system that has increasing issues with safety. French says produce recalls and not knowing if food is safe can be scary and people want to know if their food comes from someone they can trust.
That trust is an integral part of the connection between farmer and chef. One bad shipment of produce or one bad meal can spell disaster on both ends. Ironically, French says, food safety “never came up in any discussions I had for the book.” The issue is so important it becomes an implicit given between farmer and chef as their relationship develops.
Chefs also see it in a larger food industry framework. French says seafood and leafy green vegetables raise multiple safety concerns. There is conflict among growers, wholesalers and chefs about what safety means, he adds, and sometimes neither the farmer nor the chef has the power to ensure it. So they go outside the system.
For example, French says for seafood, doing business with someone who uses smaller boats is better than buying from a larger trawler. “Smaller boats have fresher products. If you have those connections you can trace it to the boat,” he says.
“The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook” is just the latest effort from French, who calls himself the Eco-chef, and is a contributing author to “The New Green Grocer Cookbook.” Before becoming a chef, French, who has a master’s degree in ecology, was a scientist and spent time living with the Baka pygmies in Cameroon.
Recipe: Dandelion Green and Delicata Squash Salad
From Sarah Henkin of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture
2 lbs. Delicata squash
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 lb. guanciale (or bacon or pancetta), medium to small dice
1/4 lb. dandelion greens, washed and dried
1/4 lb. salty, tangy cheese (feta or ricotta salata both work well)
1/2 cup pistachios, shelled, toasted, and roughly chopped
splash red wine vinegar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and slice the squash into thin half moons. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake on a baking sheet until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Heat a sauté pan over a medium-high flame. Add a glug of olive oil, heat until it starts to shimmer and circulate in the pan, then add guanciale. Sauté until crisp, then set aside to drain on a paper towel. Remove squash from the oven and let cool slightly. In a serving bowl, mix together the dandelion greens, half of the cheese, and half of the pistachios. Toss the squash in with the greens, add a splash of vinegar and a glug of olive oil over the top, just to coat the leaves, and gently toss to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust, keeping in mind you will be adding more salty cheese. Garnish with the guanciale, remaining cheese, and nuts to serve.
Image credit: Aaron French