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.