Recently Chef Aaron McCloud from Cedar restaurant in Washington D.C invited three farmers from the Penn Quarter FRESHFARM Market to dinner. But this wasn’t just any dinner. This was the first time these farmers from Garner’s Produce, Black Rock Orchard and Evensong Farm had ever had anyone cook their products for them. The farmers’ eyes lit up as Chef McCloud brought dish after wonderful dish – all featuring local farmers – to the table. Many of the ingredients had been bought at market that day, while others had been bought earlier in the season and preserved for later use. It was fantastic to listen to the conversation between chef and farmer about the products, the preparation and how the products were grown. In honor of that special night, we conducted a Q & A with both Chef McCloud and Emily Zaas of Black Rock Orchards, one of the farmers at dinner that night, to get their perspective on the special partnership between chef and farmer that is fueling the appetite for local foods.
Why do you source from local farmers?
Chef: There are several reasons:
1. They have great product. It’s always very in season because it’s what is in our backyard. I also love that I can walk right outside the restaurant every Thursday to the Penn Quarter FRESHFARM Market and it’s right there. It’s the best grocery store you can possibly find.
2. I love showcasing the farmer and educating our staff and customers to understand the product on the plate. It creates a different dynamic in the restaurant. I get all the cooks and front of the house to understand it’s coming from people and farms that are not far from us. You can see the difference it makes on a cook by looking at them when they are talking to a farmer. They treat the product with more respect and care when they realize the farmer is busting their butt to grow the product. It completely recreates a perception and appreciation for the ingredients we work we work with everyday.
3. Customers want it. The typical American guest and what they want out of dining experience has changed over the past 15 years. The Food Network and other food focused media have completely transformed our relationship with food. Our tastes have changed. We’re more interested in where our food comes from, how it was raised, if it’s organic, if the beef is grass feed or pasture raised, etc.
Why do you work with local chefs?
Emily: At Penn Quarter in particular, the chefs add to the vibrancy of the market. I welcome the activity they generate by shopping for area restaurants in person. Some of the chefs frequently shop for their families too. Like any group of regular customers, its nice to get to know them and it helps our business. Aaron, in particular, has made a personal effort to introduce himself and bring associates and even media members around to talk to us personally. He is generous about putting our name on his tweets and menu when he uses something from Black Rock Orchard. Just as customers like to know the producers they buy from, it’s nice for us to see that a chef takes a personal interest in our business.
What is your favorite part about getting products from local farmers?
Chef: There are two things I love:
1. The products – we source out the best local source we can.
2. The interaction with the farmers and getting to know them. I’ve worked with some farms that have started raising new animals or produce because of our relationship. Martin’s Angus Farm in the Plains, Virginia just started offering lamb after conversations we’d been having for years. I was always asking them when they were going to start selling it and it’s exciting to hear it’s finally happening. It’s so cool.
Why is it important to source from local farmers?
Chef: The products offered are often the best and because it’s important to support the local economy. As a chef I’m also a business person, as is the farmer, and it’s important to be active in the local community and local economy. DC is interesting because I can be at an incredible produce farm in 20 minutes. That’s pretty rare – you can’t do that in lots of other big cities. We have a pretty unique opportunity to support the local community and local farms, which I think is critical.
What do you wish people knew about farmers?
Chef: They are almost all, at least the good ones, extremely passionate about what they do. And extremely proud of what they do. It’s not easy work, but it’s really cool.
A lot of the farmers don’t ever really go to a restaurant, mostly because they are working a lot and don’t have time. The dinner we did for them the other night was to thank them for all they do. The look on their faces when they saw what I was doing with their product meant a lot to me. Especially for the smaller, boutique size farms it’s important that guests realize how important it is to the farmers.
What’s your favorite time of the year to get product from farmers?
Chef: That’s tough. Spring & fall probably. Everyone is so excited. There is a new energy in the air about what is coming up. In the spring, the farmers are talking about which products are in abundance like asparagus and spring herbs like sorrel which has really fresh, vibrant flavors. Strawberries are right around the corner. You feel the excitement in the air walking around a farm or a great farmers market.
What’s your favorite time of the year to work with chefs?
Emily: The chefs who we respect most buy from us all season and organize their menus around what we have available. Some of the chefs work with us to use fruit we have in abundance instead of trying to buy only the last of something or the first of something else.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with?
Chef: That’s impossible to answer (laughing). It changes all the time. My favorite ingredient is change – the change of the seasons. Not just winter, spring, summer, fall. Some seasons are a week long. It’s really great and wonderful. Things are constantly evolving. It keeps me on my toes and keeps it interesting for everyone – farmers, guests, cooks, etc.
What is your favorite product to sell to a chef?
Emily: Apples. They are my favorite product that we grow. I married my husband because I like apples and he grew some of my favorite kinds.
What’s the most popular farmer sourced item/ingredient on your menu?
Chef: Our menu changes really frequently – a few times a week. The change is most popular. Guests are really excited about the change because it’s what’s in season, the American diner mindset has evolved towards that excitement about new products and learning about food. We have a lot of products you don’t see in restaurants all that often.
How have you seen your customers’ interest in locally sourced ingredients change?
Chef: The mindset has changed. As I mentioned earlier, guest are more interested in where their food comes from and who it comes from. It’s a really cool time to be in the food industry in the America.
Emily: Black Rock Orchard has always sold its fruit entirely at farmers markets where customers appreciated locally sourced produce before that term became popular. Now we sell the same local produce to a wider group of customers. I have been very pleased with the Penn Quarter market because I see a greater diversity of customers willing to pay for our produce even if the prices might be a little higher than the grocery store. Sometimes new customers don’t quite trust that our produce is good. It is satisfying to have customer who hesitated over purchasing a quart of peaches one week return the following week to say she loved them. If a new customer returns regularly, I feel that I am doing a good job. Different types of customers are beginning to appreciate the value of local produce.
Is there anything else you would like people to know?
Chef: The important difference between mass produced products (meat, cheese, dairy, eggs, produce, etc.) found at grocery store and at farmers markets. I really want to encourage people to support the farmers, understand how hard they work, especially the small farms. I want people to understand what these farmers are doing. I would like them to understand why what they buy at a farmers market is a little more expensive.
Look at chickens as an example. They have been over mass produced for generations now. It’s horrendous. It everyone went to a chicken farm on an Eastern Shore farm, they would never want chicken again. These chickens are raised with their breasts being way larger then they should be because McDonald’s wants only white breast meat. They live in crowded coops. They are jacked up on antibiotics. They are feed corn then shipped off to be processed.
Smaller farms are doing great stuff with chicken. They are raising heritage breeds. Their chickens are feeding out on pasture eating bugs, they way nature intended. They are not suppose to be stuck in a coop with corn shoved down their throat. It is more expensive to raise chickens this way. In the long run, it can be made more affordable if more people who purchase from these local farms. The more we can get it so that the farmers can make the production and have the support, the better off we’ll be. And, more of our population will appreciate what farmers are doing.
Photo credit: Amy Blaszyk