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June After April

This is the first of what I hope will be many essays written at Eckerton Hill Farm in Eastern Pennsylvania.  I have left the Forager position at The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, and am now living and working at Eckerton Hill.  We primarily grow heirloom tomatoes and chili peppers, and sell our produce at the farmers market in Union Square.

As I move, both physically and mentally, out of The Spotted Pig and into Eckerton Hill, my writing will probably encourage (or shamelessly draw) general conclusions about New York restaurants and small farms in the Northeast.  I’d like to acknowledge now that not all restaurants are run by petite British women who once aspired to the police force, serve 380 people every night in a space that seats 100, and pump out over one thousand fancy burgers in a week.  Not all farm owners struggle with the thought of a writing career they haven’t quite left behind, cultivate more than fifteen thousand tomato plants each summer, and sell at a market 113 miles away, two (sometimes three) days a week.  The stories I tell, in short, will be unique to the specific places and people in them.  And the more appropriate (and strikingly easy to make) comparisons may in fact be between Eckerton Hill and the Bloomfield restaurants themselves.

When I was training the replacement Forager, she told me how everything about the Forager job seemed simple on the surface, how she felt capable of each task she had to complete, but that all the details she’d have to remember, all the small notes and facts that I kept filed in my head, would take time for her to absorb: tastes, of course, and personalities, tricycle capacities, bus tub quantities, and dollars per pound per piece per yield per quart per recipe depending on the cook.  Where did we get fava beans last Friday, how many dozen eggs do we order per week, how many portions are we getting per whole fish of a particular size.  Could she cost out immediately – from cost per flat of berries, per box of fruit, per pound of sugar, per bottle of liquor – a two-quart container of macerated mixed fruit.  Can we get a better price on beef tongue, are we getting the faxes from Guy Jones, have we ordered from Upstate in time for their delivery on Monday, and in the meantime could she please find white escarole SOMEWHERE and could she track down red chili peppers in Chinatown.  Also could she at some point put together a seasonal seafood chart, and an excel sheet of the change in food cost if we were to stop working with Dairyland.  That was the Forager job. A miriad of little things, a few larger projects.  Seven different chefs were each tossing me sets of modest but plentiful tasks to juggle, each of them often unaware of the others’ demands.

The pace on the farm is not necessarily drastically different.  All the pretty flats of seedlings teased me with a certain daintiness until I saw what blazing rows of tomato vines they become.  Every step of the way, we have to worry: are they getting enough sun, are they getting enough water, has it rained, is it too dry.  Meanwhile, Spring hits.  How many boxes of lettuce did we pick and what’s bolting and what’s still small, what size did the chefs want?  Who ordered mixed baby heads this week?  Did we milk the goat and does she have enough water and where is that other hen laying her egg, and is the electric fence working?  How much are we charging for the broccoli, what should we charge for those fava leaves, is anyone going to buy romaine this size?  What did we pick.  Haricot vert, heirloom carrots, heirloom beets, scallions, new potatoes, snap peas, English peas, tuscan kale, red russian kale, scottish kale, swiss chard, black raspberries.  Meanwhile, we put the tomatoes in the ground:  Have we watered the plants in this heat, did we close the well, how’s the pressure in the well, did you notice the level of the spring, was the soil wet?  How many rows of tomatoes are left without stakes or string?  Do not drive over that irrigation line.  How many more rows still need straw beneath them?  Be sure to tie the string from the bales on the stakes, or they’ll get caught in the tiller.  Do we have enough boxes for the squash and do we bring them to the field or pack them in the shed and did we get the squash blossoms in the walk-in right away.  Where are the scissors for the basil?  We’ll be back at 9pm to load the truck.  If we keep the berries in the walk-in until the morning will we remember to stick them in the truck at 3:30am when we leave for market.  Do we have everything? Extra baskets for the table, three tables plus two, the white tent, the supply box with the scale, receipts, tablecloths, market aprons, and pens.  Corn will soon be the mortar between the boxes.  Tomatoes will be easier than all of this.  So says Tim.

In step with the switch from restaurant to farm, my vocabulary has expanded from the kitchen to the field, from charolas and basquetas, limones, papas and amburgesas, to piscar and limpiar, manguera, hojas, avas, chicaros, lechuga.  Tomates.  A moderate ability to understand Spanish allows me in on both sides of the conversations between a good boss and non-English speaking workers, the language they have developed over the years, the hand gestures and exaggerated voices, and the understanding of each others’ facial expressions, temperament, and mood.  The prep manager communicates with the head chef at The Pig, outside the restaurant entrance door, up from the stairs in the basement, much like the farmhand manager speaks with Tim, outside the packing shed or in the field.  They are each used to the stress, the details, the tempers that blow, the fact that every day has its last straw: the yellow squash should have been picked smaller, all the tomato rows should have been checked, we only wanted three boxes of kale today, blossom stems should be cut with a scissors, why did you waste time harvesting so few favas?  One can’t help but wonder if the rhythm of misunderstandings is the one that drives us crazy or the one that keeps us sane.

Heat is not so much a characteristic of the climate as it is the medium of our work and production.  Much like the restaurant.  The kitchen rises to the temperature created by the act of cooking, and the farm plays to the temperature required for the act of growing.  And the people had better well adjust.  I put up nails in my room to hang my soiled clothes at night, to dry.  And where I am not scratched by squash leaves or puckered with poison ivy, my skin is getting smoother from the sweat.

Even certain details of my personal lifestyle here remain the same: we need to go to bed early and often fail; we could do something adventurous on the weekends but often just want to rest or write; we manage to spend money on a regular basis, though our only real expenses are beer and transportation.

I have found a certain comfort in the unpredicted parallels between one good food job and another, though gradually the differences have begun to win my attention.

We on the farm crew break, and sit down in the kitchen, to eat our lunch.  The early morning, and twilight, can be periods of calm.  Work and rest revolve around physical strains and satisfactions.  The days can be long stretches, of conversations and silences, in the field.  To work here is to submit, to choose, to live in and on and through the farm.  And in that sense we who work together have chosen to be here living together, and unlike many friends or even most lovers, we work and talk side by side throughout the day, about our random ideas, the books we’ve read, the people we’ve met, and the projects we have in our heads.  We may not have much time to ourselves, but we do have the mental space, the field, in which to think.  And with that…..I will try to be writing all season.

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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.

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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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