Every summer Sunday morning at 11am, a crowd gathers around a table at the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market. Everyone, including a nearby canine or two, has their eyes glued to the chef behind the table who chops aromatic scallions while melting butter in a hot pan and guides the audience through the steps of a seasonal recipe. This is the FRESHFARM Market’s Chef at Market program.
Through the program, FRESHFARM Markets operates approximately 200 demos each year at all 10 farmers markets in the hopes that chefs and home-cooks can help share their knowledge on how to use seasonal fresh produce. The demos are not just educational, but a chance to build connection between local chefs and local farmers. However, 15 years ago, when the program started, things were much different.
The Chef at Market program was born shortly after the Dupont Circle market opened in July 1997, and while the program goals were very much the same, it was difficult to coax chefs from the kitchen. FRESHFARM Market’s Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director, Ann Yonkers spent hours not only recruiting chefs to the program, but also conducting many of the demos herself. At that time, it wasn’t just the program that was new, but also the farmers market, and for many, the concept of eating local and seasonal foods. But, there is something unifying about good food, and it didn’t take long until chefs, shoppers and farmers began gathering round the table.
Today, Chef at Market Program Coordinator, Maddy Beckwith, fields applications from hundreds of chefs and food authors each year, most local, but some, including Michael Pollan, Jacques Pepin and Mollie Katzen (Moosewood Kitchen) traveling to the District for book signings. Rather than spending hours pounding the pavement recruiting, Maddy now spends hours networking by phone and email, coordinating recipes, and sourcing ingredients from the farmers. During the peak season, Maddy coordinates about five demos per week, everything from the home-cook with a fabulous recipe for kale, to the giant Paella extravaganzas hosted by Jose Andres’s Jaleo, in which a team of chefs, often including Jose himself and a guest chef from Spain, roll out the nine-foot diameter Paella pan and cook a meal large enough to feed the entire market.
The broad reach of the program now allows us to attract a wide range of cooking talent, and even host demos that feature many vegetarian, vegan or even raw-foods chefs. For the chefs, the program is more than just publicity. It’s a chance to get out of the kitchen, enjoy the market day, and directly interact with the people who eat their food. Some chefs, such as Michael Costa, Ris Lacoste, Odessa Piper or Janis McLean, have dedicated countless hours, early mornings and hot summer days to the program. The demos are fun and dynamic and sometimes a bit unexpected. During one demo, Jared Slip, of Notte Bianche and Dish, proposed to his girlfriend by slipping a ring over a spear of asparagus and passing it to her as the first sample (she said yes).
While marriage proposals might not happen every week, we hope that the Chef at Market experience is not only an opportunity for our customers to sample some free food, but also inspiration to try a new vegetable or learn new cooking techniques. And for us at FRESHFARM Markets, not only do we get to learn along side our customers, but we revel in watching the great connections that arise between grower, cook and eater.
Post by Laura Genello, FRESHFARM Markets Newsletter