Chefs, farmers are working together
MONTEREY — Since choosing to work on the slaughter side of the meat industry, in order to create better access to quality processing services for local and small scale farmers, I’ve been a connection between the food production sector and the food service sector.
And not just figuratively, but literally: I’d go from working with farmers on their cut lists and dropping off their animals, to delivering a sack of meat to the back door of the brewery on my way home. Chefs would call and tell me, “I need X number of X cuts of meat in X size.” My job was to work with my beef growers to make sure that they could provide that. Working with farmers and chefs within a local context can be challenging work, but there are plenty of rewards if we can learn to work together.
Having worked in food service, whether at the snack bar at age 16 to Manhattan fine dining, I understand working with cooks/chefs. Sometimes I see a sentiment from farmers that chefs are demanding. Sometimes, that’s true. But mostly, chefs are just like any other business person: they are just trying to do the best job they can, and serve the best food they can, in a way that is sustainable for their business. Likewise, farmers are just trying to do the best job they can, and grow the best product they can, in a way that is sustainable for their business.
When all parties are emotionally invested in their own product and service, it is easy to forget that we all share this common ground.
My senior thesis in anthropology at Fort Lewis was a study looking at the barriers that were preventing local restaurants from buying more local products. The results of the study showed four main challenges to overcome — consistency, quality, volume, and price. Even when all of these factors could be addressed, there was an inertia of habit, or hesitancy, still blocking the two parties from com- ing together. Building trust is going to be the best way to overcome this hesitancy. We should be all working together.
In each of these categories, there are sacrifices each party may have to make to work with one another. Chefs may have to pay a higher price, which still may not be the price the farmer wants or needs. armers want a commitment from a chef before they take a risk by growing for that one customer. Will each party stay with the other through good times and bad, for better or for worse? If we can all work with one another, there are advantages to kindling this relationship.
The advantages to chefs buying locally from small farmers include:
• Better customer service. If a chef wants a certain heirloom cherry tomato for a salad, it will be easier for a small farmer to be able to supply this than a large food distribution company.
• Higher quality and distinctive taste. In the restaurants using local products, you can taste more freshness, unique qualities, and memorable flavors. It actually becomes a meal someone will want to spend money on.
• Creativity and authenticity. My mother in law goes with the “When in Rome” philosophy when she’s traveling and out to eat. Take advantage of regional crops that frame the culture of your region. Give visitors and locals alike a reason to taste and be impressed with flavors that reflect the traditions and heritage of your area.
The advantages to farmers selling locally to chefs include:
• Get a better price for your product. Chefs are willing to pay for quality, if the quality is there. If you are delivering once a week to a restaurant, you won’t have to rely solely on the farmers market or your direct sales as a source of income.
• Have a consistent buyer. If you can be flexible to work with their requests you will start to form a trusting relationship. You will be able to mold your growing season to your customer. Having the knowledge of what you are growing, how much you need to grow, and what the price is and for what customer, you will be able to better predict and prepare for your growing season. That leaves you to simply focus on growing a better product, and not how to sell it.
• Marketing. Increase your customer base by engaging directly with your customer through the restaurant. When a diner eats your product, prepared perfectly by a chef, they will be able to connect with your farm through this meal, and they will remember your name.
And for both groups, support your community — There are many studies around the country, though with varying results, showing the same general findings: when a dollar is spent locally, it circulates more and has more of an economic impact than a dollar spent at an absentee retailer. With restaurants, this impact could be even greater.
Editor’s note: Chris Fuller is general manager at Alleghany Meats. He has worked in the meat processing industry for five years, following 10 years in the food service industry. He contributes a column on this subject from time to time for Recorder readers.