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Archive for August, 2009

The Only Grease

This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City.  Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.

The flow of food from a small farm to a restaurant relies tremendously upon trust.

Food from small farms comes to the restaurant I work for via: the farmers market (delivery by me), direct delivery by the farmer, and delivery by distributors that work specifically with small, local farms.  The flow – the chain, the route, the number of hands that the food passes through – is minimal.  But there is plenty of room for error.

The chef and cooks of a restaurant need to trust the farmer, forager, deliverer, or distributor to say – on the phone – when products are not good or not available, to inform them of the highest quality items being harvested, to keep them up to date and not leave them in a lurch.  The restaurant needs to trust suppliers to maintain their prices, and not take advantage of an account and a regular order; to invoice the right weights on meat and fish and cheese; to allow for credit for returned product. 

I need the chefs to trust that their forager chooses the best berries, tastes every ear of corn, and that when I say the cucumbers are all large and mealy, that I’m right.  The chefs need to be able to trust that I will tell them (and that I will make sure they’re listening) if I didn’t get all they asked for, if a farmer said it was the last week of something (ramps, asparagus, or favas), or if a farmer won’t be harvesting baby arugula next week because the plantings are off and there wont be anything to harvest.  The chefs need to trust that I will warn them of any change in the day-to-day food supply that will affect their preparation for service.  The day-to-day food supply is always changing.  

The farmers, in turn, often have to trust that the restaurant will pay them in a timely fashion, either by cash or check at the market, or by a check in the mail that may arrive once a week, or once a month, or even less often, though their products might be available at Union Square on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  For now, the farmers have to trust the restaurants, or they might lose the business.  Often, this trust is based simply upon a personal relationship.  Farmers market “invoices” are not the most official of documents. 

The ability to be trusted could be called an expectation of each individual’s employment (forager, deliverer, distributor, farmer, chef) – it could be called honesty, or reliability.  But in the flow of food from a small farm to a restaurant, the variables are too many, the structure too loose, and the needs too personal, for these general terms.  Seasons change, trucks break down, greens wilt in traffic, peaches bruise in a ten-minute car ride, invoiced meat arrives and needs to be prepared and the scale is upstairs.  You have to trust that everyone is doing their best.  The time necessary for all the check-points needed if this trust is lacking….is precious.  Many check-points are necessary regardless.  

So everyone working must be one hundred percent responsible for everything they touch, see, notice, or doubt.  Someone who too often questions the effectiveness of others takes too much time.  Someone who is not trustworthy clogs the flow of food.

And, as I mentioned already, trust in this food chain is personal.  Aside from requiring conscious honesty, responsibility, and expertise, this trust requires a certain knowledge of personal tastes and preferences, a certain loyalty to friends, and an ability to run along the precise, perfect line that is not only a long relationship, but a consistently reliable one.  There is a sort of mafia of affiliations in a restaurant – a family – built of favors, collaborations, and debts.  To breach the trust amongst this family is to achieve a certain personal and practical failure, while to fulfill one’s duties within it is to become valuable and needed.

Participation in the flow of food from a small farm to a restaurant requires trust.

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Since the end of May this year, I have been working as a Forager for the Executive Chef of two New York City restaurants.  I purchase local food, research food sources, track food prices, and cultivate a relationship between the chef and the producers of the food she cooks.  While recognizing that to have a Forager (or Steward, or Food Procurer, if you will) is a luxury most chefs cannot afford, I know it is also something many of them have never really considered.  And I believe the position could be a core element of a restaurant’s role in the development of a regional food system.  My vision for that role is a work in progress.  For now, I’ll share what I can.

The need for chefs to have individual relationships with the farmers of the food they cook is a need that goes beyond the implication of attention to and respect for how and where food is produced.  Restaurants can be life support for a farm, and can cultivate a farmer’s skills in producing high quality food.  Chefs can develop their recipes and menus, and their skills in the kitchen, knowing the characteristics of the food that a specific farm can provide.  The relationship between farm and restaurant, ideally, is between two independent businesses – one that provides a product and one that pays an adequate sum – both of which feed off of each other’s enthusiasm for what is possible, what is exciting, what strengthens not only the soil, but the palate, as well as the pocketbook.  Someone who works for a chef, but who understands the economics, politics, and physical logistics of farming, is a crucial link.  The employment of a Forager, as a representative of his or her chef, ensures that the relationship between restaurant and farmer will exist and flourish, rather than disintegrate under the pressures of time, money, and physical convenience.

For anyone who has known me, or has read the essays on this site over the last two years, it may seem a stretch of the imagination to relate urban foraging for high-end Manhattan restaurants to my work in food access, human health, sustainable agriculture, and fair trade policy.  If it is in fact a stretch to consider this connection, I think the stretch is healthy exercise for the imagination.  That is, my current work not only draws upon the knowledge I have gained over the years, but is also teaching me quite a lot about things I thought I knew.

For two and a half months, I have considered many ways in which I might write about my work, without revealing any secrets, without finding myself mired in New York City restaurant world gossip.  I know simply that I want to share what I am learning.  I am learning – as a benevolent sort of middlewoman – how to interact with chefs purposefully, how to communicate with farmers with integrity, how whole animals are delivered, butchered, and prepared, how to cost out a recipe, how to consider a taste for another person’s palate, how fish is sourced, judged, cleaned, and cut, how fragile mixed greens are washed and stored with care.  I am being given the chance to develop and strengthen an incredible relationship between two restaurants and their regional producers, and I believe this development is worth documenting.  This is the first go.  My hope is to write weekly, briefly, about a specific thing that I have learned through my work, whether related to the soil, the marketplace, the kitchen, or the plate.  And I will include photos at the end.  I hope what I share is of interest.


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