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The Menu Meeting

The following essay was written for the New Amsterdam Market blog, in preparation for New Amsterdam Market’s upcoming Winter Night Banquet.  The multi-course dinner will be the first in a series of events that will inform and benefit the development of the New Amsterdam Market School of Regional Cookery, envisioned as a place where all New Yorkers can learn to shop for and prepare economical and nutritious meals, season by season.  The meeting described was an effort to collaboratively design the banquet menu.

Our banquet chefs, Sara Jenkins and Odessa Piper, may both be well known for their work in the sustainable food movement, but they are not cut of the same cloth.  You meet the two women and imagine each presiding over a productive kitchen, one with a hefty cleaver, and the other with a magic wand.  Sara chuckles at the idea of lamb testicles, and lays down the law when it comes to Italian olive oil.  Odessa reflects on exquisite hickory nuts and daydreams about flats of fresh ground cherries.  Their personal styles are as different as those of April Bloomfield in New York and Alice Waters in Berkeley.  Yet they are both women, both in the same profession, and this weekend they came together to form the menu for a banquet.

Gathered round a wooden table in the Henry Street Settlement House last Saturday afternoon, we were an intimate crew, warm from the sun-reflecting snow that shown through the building’s high windows.  Robert Lavalva, Cerise Mayo, and the two female chefs, were joined by a cook who once worked in Odessa’s kitchen in Madison, the seafood purveyor who will provide the oysters for the banquet, a local neighbor and a gardener who will both be attending the dinner, the gardener’s daughter (an aspiring writer), a journalist who will be planning the place-settings for the banquet, and me, the Forager at The Spotted Pig.  We listened, as Robert introduced us to the space.

The house was built in the 1890’s, he told us, and the original residents undoubtedly sourced their food from the old Essex Street Market on Essex and Grand Streets, and from the Fulton Street Market where we hope the New Amsterdam Market will come to life.  He read a brief passage from The Market Assistant, a book written by the nineteenth century New York butcher Thomas Devoe.  Devoe described in detail the “large and famous Baron of Beef,” a cut “held in the highest estimation as the crowning dish for the Christmas dinner.”  We found ourselves envisioning our version of this crowning dish…. And the meeting was off!  And the menu began to take shape.

We would begin with oysters.  Sara wanted to use the Maine shrimp from Port Clyde.  Could we get fresh horseradish for the oysters?  Of course.  Would the shrimp need to be peeled?  No, you can eat the whole thing!  Isn’t Maine too far away to call local?  Robert explained his understanding that while Maine is by no means in our region, sustainability in fishing is less about the miles than the species of fish and the manner in which the fish are caught.  Maine would be ok for shrimp.  The horseradish would need to be from New York State.

We envisioned the beginning: we will come in and the piano will be playing and there will be oysters and shrimp.  And then Sara imagined we should have a consommé, filled with all variety of vegetables we can provide.  Cerise had given everyone at the table a preliminary list of available ingredients, and their sources.  Parsley root, potatoes, shallots, carrots, onions, and garlic from Muddy River Farm.  Chard, kale, spinach, and sunchokes from The Rogowski Farm.  Grains and beans from Cayuga Organics, meat from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, cheese from Saxelby Cheesemongers, and black walnuts and wild ginger from the Wild Food Foragers in Vermont.  Early Spring has a bounty to celebrate!  Sara and Odessa rallied back and forth about the vegetables in the consommé, deciding on potatoes, swiss chard, and barley.  Odessa debated how the vegetables should be cut.  Would we have vegetables in the salad as well?  No, because lamb testicles were on our list, and Sara was not about to leave them out.  She wanted to fry them tempura style, serve them with a good cutting vinegar and arugula, or watercress, and maybe black radishes.  Parsley would be appreciated.  Why does no one grow parsley in the winter?  Cerise chimed in that the herb is slow growing and not a particularly profitable use of greenhouse space.  We settled for shaved parsley root.

The conversation, the crafting of this menu, mixed together our pools of knowledge with refreshing simplicity.  We all learned and contributed from our individual perspectives on farming and seasonality, professional cooking and plate presentation, urban histories and rural traditions.  Robert humbly asked what, in fact, was a consommé?  Clarified stock, Sara answered simply.  It was originally an Italian food for the sick, she explained.  Adding vegetables is really an American slant.

Everybody knows a ribeye, Sara declared, so she suggested a beef shank for the meat course.  The shin of the animal, less familiar, not very tender, in need of slow cooking.  Sara had tasted a plate in Italy: beef shank with lightly cooked, lightly pickled vegetables, quickly blanched in a hot brine.  This would be her chance to try making it herself.  She could use the oven at Porchetta.  The vegetables would be carrots, onions, celery root, and green garlic.  She could put the bone from the shank to good use, to make the consommé.

The discussion continued with Odessa musing on the rich nuttiness of Jerusalem artichokes and the contrasting sweetness of parsnips, and Sara describing her memories of lamb testicles – she used to eat them with her Mexican kitchen crew, braised with tomatoes and chilis, when they were getting lambs at her restaurant.  The banquet guests would be the perfect audience for this food, otherwise too outlandish for even a New York restaurant menu.  Melissa, who will be helping with the place settings, raised the question of what should be plated, and what would best be served family style.  The soup will be difficult to carry, so Sara suggested that the broth be poured at the table over the vegetables in each guest’s bowl.  The gardener volunteered her homegrown chamomile for tea.  The gardener’s daughter wondered whether we might include Cayuga’s grains.  We defined Freekah, complete with Robert’s explanation of how the early wheat used to be burned in the fields, creating an unintended pleasant, toasted flavor.  We wondered if green garlic would be ready in two weeks, if watercress will yet be growing at the stream heads.

We forged ahead with Cerise explaining Anne Saxelby’s suggestions for the cheese course: either the fresh goat cheeses that will just be coming into season, or a single cheese in it’s seasonal variations, to demonstrate the effect of the seasons on the flavor of the milk.  Odessa piped up in favor of the seasonal demonstration, before realizing that local honey was available, which she immediately wanted to serve with a fresh goat cheese.  Regardless, we knew Anne would present the cheese with her ever-evolving charismatic knowledge of local cheese making.

Odessa already had her dessert imagined.  Heirloom apples halved, deseeded, roasted with maple sugar, wrapped in phyllo dough articulated with hickory nuts.  Could we have local brandy?  Raw cider?  Had we invited any artisan chocolate makers?  In fact, the Mast Brothers will be making a chocolate especially for the meal, with black walnuts from the Vermont foragers.  Odessa expressed her love-hate relationship with black walnuts, but forged on with her chocolate ideas.  Could we get frozen fruit?  We could dip the fruit in chocolate…we could entooomb it in chocolate!  We settled for the apples, and the chocolate already arranged.

And we reviewed the menu from the beginning.

OYSTERS

From Long Island, with fresh horseradish, shucked on ice.

SHRIMP

Whole, from Maine.

SOUP

A consommé made from the beef shank bone, with parsley root, potato, swiss chard, spinach, and barley, the broth poured at the table.

SALAD

Tempura lamb testicles with watercress, black radishes,

A mustard and squash oil dressing.

MEAT

Beef shank braised with lightly pickled carrots, onions, celery root, and green garlic.

NAVY BEANS

From the Finger Lakes.

ROASTED WINTER VEGETABLES

All of the wide variety available.

CHEESE

A fresh goat’s milk with honey.

DESSERT

Baked heirloom apples with maple sugar and hickory nuts

CHOCOLATE

Made with black walnuts.

The cheese and bread we’d been eating at the table suddenly left us hungry for this beautiful meal.  And we around the table smiled shyly with the pleasure of early accomplishment, with the excitement of the event just two weeks away, and the many preparations still to be made.  “Well,” Robert concluded simply, “I think we have a banquet!”  And we all couldn’t help but agree.

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Listening, Learning

In last week’s New Yorker, an article entitled Testing, Testing, written by Atul Gawande, details the author’s optimistic perspective on the Senate’s new health care bill.  Gawande highlights and applauds the bill’s inclusion of pilot programs reminiscent of those responsible for transforming American agriculture in the early 20th century.  “While we crave sweeping transformation,” he writes initially, “all the bill offers is [these] pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments.  The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of [such] magnitude [as that of our health care system].  And yet…history suggests otherwise.” 

Gawande goes on to explain that agriculture was, like health care, a ridiculously expensive and yet crucial sector in the early 1900s, when “more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food…and farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American work-force.”  The author credits former “agricultural explorer” Seaman Knapp, hired by the USDA in 1903, with getting farmers to farm differently through efforts that started with a pilot program.  Knapp’s work began in Texas, where he encouraged a single farmer to test out a list of simple innovations, including “deeper plowing and better soil preparation, the use of only the best seed, the liberal application of fertilizer, and thorough cultivation to remove weeds and aerate the soil around the plants.”  The success of this initial program led other farmers to follow Knapp’s guidance, leading to similar “demonstration farms” across the country and to the establishment of the USDA Cooperative Extension Service, employing seven thousand extension agents nationwide by 1930.  Other USDA pilot programs led to comparative-effectiveness research, investment in providing farmers with weather forecasts, seasonal statistics, and tremendously helpful information broadcasting.  Gawande claims that the “hodgepodge” of pilot programs led to ultimately successful change, in that agricultural productivity increased dramatically, food prices fell by over fifty per cent, and farming came to employ only twenty per cent of the workforce by 1930.  “Today,” he goes on, “food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force.  It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history.”

Testing, Testing makes several worthwhile, take-home points.   The author characterizes the reformation of the health care system (like the transformation of the agricultural system) as a problem which is not “amenable to a technical solution,” or a “one-time fix,” but rather one that requires a process of change.  He recognizes farming and medicine as both involving “hundreds of thousands of local entities across the country.”    And he encourages his readers to resist their cynical reaction to the government, writing that his solution is one in which the government “has a crucial role to play,” to guide the system, rather than running it.  He rather shockingly fails to mention, however, the failure of the agricultural transformation that is his model for modern day health care reform. 

The failure of the 20th century agricultural transformation is made manifest in the one product that (appropriately enough) both farming and health care would ideally generate: human health.

Over the past century, food prices have indeed gone down, agricultural production has indeed gone up, and America has, on paper, been relieved of devoting to agriculture the significant force of labor formerly required by farming.  This was all considered a success for several decades, until obesity, diabetes, early sexual maturity, and E. coli food poisoning (along with dozens of other health problems) were recently recognized as the effects of industrial agriculture.  The modern American diet – of highly processed foods made with high fructose corn syrup, meat from animals injected with antibiotics and hormones, and genetically modified foods not quite approved for human consumption – is one of the main causes of our deteriorating health.  Not to mention that industrial agriculture has irreparably damaged our nation’s environmental health, has dangerously demolished biodiversity, and still employs a fantastically under-paid, under-represented workforce of undocumented immigrants.

Gawande perhaps deserves the benefit of the doubt, for his article is optimistic, and encourages the American people to see more in the new health care bill than 2,074 pages that do not “even meet the basic goal that [we] had in mind: to lower costs.”  But his comparison begs for the recognition of what went wrong in the transformation of agriculture, because of a lack of holistic thinking, of preventative solutions, of respect for resources.  This time around, unless we are careful, the price drop and the productivity increase will still not provide the one thing we all want more than a smaller bill.  It will not provide us with health.

Still Too Small

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 farmers market at Union Square comes to life four days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.  Everyone who knows that and hears about my job wonders within five minutes – Where do you go the other three days of the week?  And while there are more than fifty farmers markets in the five boroughs, I visit only a few others, only on occasion.  My regular market routine revolves around Union Square.  The reasons for this are many, and include habits and logistics on both sides of the equation.  We, at the restaurant, have a relationship with the farmers at Union Square, we are accustomed to the market’s schedule, it’s the most convenient of the greenmarkets, and it has the most products and variety of all the Greenmarkets in Manhattan.  That said, we might meet new farmers, adjust to the scheduling, and broaden our definition of convenience, if the benefits would justify the effort.  For now, they don’t.

For over twenty-five years, Greenmarket has built up a network of retail farmers markets for city consumers.  These markets – with their distinct regulations, cooking demonstrations, and vibrant atmospheres – are by far the primary source for local food for individuals and families in New York City.  As more and more restaurants have begun to focus their menus on local, seasonal products, farmers and chefs alike have come up with new systems and venues for collaboration.  Farmers like Guy Jones at Blooming Hill Farm take orders from and deliver directly to chefs in the city; delivery companies like Upstate Farms and Basis Farm to Chef bring in products from several farms without losing track of each product’s origin; local purveyors, including Saxelby Cheesemongers and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, offer wholesale quantities of regional meats and cheeses to chefs throughout the city.  But many chefs focused on regional food still go to a Greenmarket and pick out fresh, local products themselves.  This allows them to speak with the farmer, to see what they’re getting before they get it, to learn about the variety each farmer is offering, and to buy products that have truly been harvested, produced, or processed  not more than a day or two in advance.

As a representative of a restaurant, shopping at the Greenmarket in Union Square, it’s important for me to know which farmers will be at the market each morning, what products they’ll have available, what their wholesale price or discount is for restaurants, and what they have coming into season.  Several farmers allow chefs (or foragers) to call in their orders a day or two before, so we exchange phone numbers, discuss what we’ll be looking for, talk about what will be available one week to the next, and coordinate harvesting, packaging, and pick-ups accordingly.  There’s a sort of a system, but one that’s frustratingly inefficient, if endearingly homemade.  The new website What is Fresh is a great (independent) guide to the greenmarkets, and helps me stay informally conscious of who has what where, but otherwise I have very little way of keeping track of the farmers at more than one market.

The improvement I imagine does not cut out personal relationships and conversations, nor the ability to pick out produce as you buy it, nor the education and collaboration that comes of marketplace interactions.  The system I seek requires a bigger regional market – still a public, physical place where buyers and sellers gather and exchange, but one that is established to accommodate wholesale quantities of food and to offer much more information to buyers and sellers alike about what to bring, expect, and request.  It is a market of a different scale, open every day, during the day, in a reasonably central location.  It isn’t the Hunts Point Market.  It isn’t a place where messy commerce is hidden, conducted at night, made ruthlessly efficient and large-scale.  It would be a place where farmers could be in touch with consumers without having to be present at the marketplace all the time; where they could sell a lot more than they would ever bring to a Greenmarket; where they could come if they wanted to meet people with whom to collaborate, as well as compete; a place where they could talk about the things they need, and find some of them.  The labor, schedule, and delivery systems necessary for such a market will require complex, new infrastructure and management, but it is high time we took this step to strengthen our local food system. 

The last New Amsterdam Market of the season is on December 20th.  I will be there.  And if it ever does one day grow into the market I describe, the market I imagine, I will be there every day.

Efficiently Exhausting

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.

My job is entitled Forager, but could also be referred to as Food Procurement Agent, Food Cost Tracker, Inventory Taker, Food Source Researcher, Food Purchaser, Market Maiden, or maybe just Errand Runner when We’re In the Shit.   At one point or another, I must act as all of the above.  While it can be frustrating to tackle tasks for which I feel unprepared, it is satisfying to maximize my usefulness, and I‘ve found that nearly everyone at the restaurant must be capable of many things.  This fact fits, really, into a certain principle of minimized waste.

The restaurant seems to require a sort of waste policy, whether in the kitchen, the front of the house, the walk-in, the dry storage, or the office.  Regardless of environmental priorities, we minimize waste because of money, space, and time.  I must be able to fill in various roles so that we don’t waste time delegating a task to more people than that task requires.  Just as I must be able to choose produce, call purveyors, pick up orders, know prices, know the content and source of every item in the walk-in and in dry storage, be able to cost out recipes, and be able to fly to the ends of the earth for an ingredient when necessary – so must all the people at the restaurant be able to fill in every nook and cranny that may need filling for the restaurant to roll.  It is an exhaustingly smooth machine when everyone willingly and quickly accomplishes everything they are capable of doing.

Avoiding food waste is of course a familiar priority, but the restaurant works on a very different level from that of the individual who takes only as much as they can eat and keeps freezer-size compost bins.  The kitchen and prep room don’t even have trash cans.   They have recycling bins and compost bins.  While the quality of food is paramount, the size and shape of meat, fish, produce, and dry goods contributes to waste management, particularly considering yield, space, and time.  Round shallots take longer to slice than torpedo shallots, long-necked butternut squash yields more seeds and less meat, smaller fish have a greater bone-to-flesh ratio than larger fish (but you also pay for the weight of the cleaned-out guts, which are larger on larger fish), and certain cuts of meat arrive with much more bone or fat or skin than others.  Many of these calculations don’t even refer to “waste” per se, as the seeds on squash are used in certain dishes, and the fish bones are used for stock.  The fat on meat is practically gold.  It’s barely about what goes in the trash bin – as I said, we don’t really have those – and more about waste of time and space.  The smaller squash also require more cleaning and chopping.  Smaller fish might be served whole and so don’t need to be filleted (which takes time), the different cuts of meat might be sold for more, so paying more for fat you’ll cut off and use for flavor is ok – you can charge more for the plate.  We get our fry oil picked up by Tristate Biodiesel – they make it easy, they come at the right time, and hell it needs to go somewhere.  Everything’s a calculation, and often a calculation made to avoid waste.

Space management is an incredible thing – the kinds of containers used, whether they have handles, have tops, can stack, can seal, hold smells, are easily cleaned, are easily labeled, can handle heat, can slide through doorways, can fit into ovens.  Products arrive in boxes, cans, bags, and crates, and different sizes and shapes fit on shelves, last the proper amount of time, keep things fresh, can be reused.  All these things are considered to avoid waste, and to avoid wasting time, money, and space.

In the office, all the printed menus from one night are used as scrap paper the next day.  Messages are sent by email or text or intercom.  Recipes, menus, programs, and schedules are on an idisk that can be accessed by every computer, so rarely do they need to be printed.  The office doesn’t work this way because the restaurant is environmentally savvy, but because this is efficiency – time-wise and money-wise.

Plastic bags are an interesting issue.  I have learned that saving plastic bags from the farmers market is a bad idea.  Moisture is ever-present, and one-day-old moisture makes for a bad container for freshly foraged food.  Since I’ve started using the tricycle, I can use two sturdy bins for much of the produce, and the shelves inside for cases of apples (reusable cardboard boxes), pints of tomatoes (I return the pints), and the zip-loc bags we use for herbs in the restaurant (which I do use new, but at least the herbs go straight into the container they’ll need for the walk-in).  I have not found a solution for arugula and watercress.  They go into a plastic bag at the market, and go out of it ASAP at the restaurant, to be washed and stored in a dry container that gives the greens space.  I would need a cabinet three times larger to have the proper containers inside it for those.  But in general, I am gradually minimizing waste – and saving time in the kitchen, and saving money on the cabs.

So I feel like there’s a certain waste policy.  Maybe this is just what it’s like to work in a restaurant.  I simply know I’m impressed.  The energy of the building may not be perfect, but the use of the energy of the people, and of all the things we buy and cook, is pretty damn good.

 

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Running on Wheels

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.

When I bike to the restaurant from Brooklyn in the morning, and as I ride the tricycle from the restaurant to the market, distribution trucks are the main traffic on the road.   It ‘s as though I’ve put myself in the running, an incredibly small competitor, rather laughably defiant, beside the titans of a certain race.  I ride beside Dairyland, Baldor, Agri Exotic, Pat La Frieda.  I get stuck behind Dairyland: The Chef’s Warehouse! all the time.  My head is right about at the height of their wheels.

Transportation, as one of many elements in distribution infrastructure, is a more complicated topic than I can tackle in one sitting.  The moving of food requires the coordination of space, labor, transportation, refrigeration, consolidation, packaging, communication, and sanitation.  One has to consider speed, cost, flexibility, scheduling, environmental effects, technical failures, returns, distance, and national, state, and city policies.

The food system has evolved as transportation has allowed, especially as boats gave way to trains, and trains gave way to trucks.  When trucks took over, most urban wholesale marketplaces left the heart of cities, often for peripheral neighborhoods where the 24-hour pollution, noise, and traffic of legions of trucks could be installed on a grand scale without facing any powerful voices of opposition.  Yes, there are now many farmers markets, CSAsurban farms, and community gardens throughout the five boroughs of New York.  Yet nearly all the food in this city, in all the supermarkets, delis, bodegas, gourmet shops, restaurants, fast food chains, and street side trucks, goes through the New York City Terminal Market in Hunts Point in the South Bronx.  That market is set up to be physically and financially efficient, and as the movement for sustainable agriculture begins to grow, we must remember to remember where that market fails.  It fails to respect the neighborhood where it is located, it erases the names of food sources and producers, it shields the public from the gritty reality of how a food system works.   The new Wholesale Greenmarket in the Bronx may only improve upon a few of these faults; the New Amsterdam Market at the Seaport may correct a few more.  The challenge now in New York is to build a system for a growing number of small farmers, and for the entire urban community, that draws what it can from the current system’s infrastructure, but does not mimic it’s faults.

I think of the wholesale markets that work by night, of all the trucks that drive by day, of all the food that fills these trucks, as I fill the cabinet on the back of the tricycle I use for work, in Union Square, in New York City.  I am no remotely significant fraction of New York’s food system.  The food I buy, the wheels I turn, don’t even represent the needs of a whole restaurant.  It is the fact that I am not the only one pushing along with a slow and steady movement…that drives me. 

I write now only because I happen to use this rather unusual vehicle, in the center of Manhattan, which is an interesting place to be.  It is a place where all at the same time, I can ride a heavily loaded tricycle too and from a farmers market, and feel barely noticed, and yet feel that a glimpse of the wheels, the open door, the inside racks…has gotten everyone’s gears turning.  When glimpses become gazes, when the middle school boys snicker, when the farmers laugh at what city people do, when the chefs wonder whether my work is made easier, when the cars honk and the bus drivers wave…it seems a glorious, hilarious part I have to play.  At least, it’s somethin.  I can fit two flats of strawberries, two flats of tomatoes, ten pounds of arugula, six pounds of watercress, a bus tup of summer squash, ten pounds of cipollini onions, and a whole case of eggplant in that cabinet.  So I do it.  And I do get stuck behind Dairyland all the time, but at least I’m in the running.

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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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