I'll admit to having scoffed at chefs at the farmers market. One day last summer, in particular.
On the hunt for black raspberries to make this ice cream, I finally spotted them under the fold-out tables at one of Union Square Greenmarket's biggest stands. But when I asked about buying them, I learned that every single one was reserved and was told it was the last day of the season. Leave some berries for the rest of us, please, I thought.
And Sara Jenkins' (chef of Porchetta and Porsena) mentality towards the market fueled my perturbance. While she'll source small amounts of "weird exotic stuff," as well as peaches, heirloom tomatoes, certain herbs like lovage, and trout from the market, wholesale produce distributors are invaluable for the convenience (try lugging enough watermelon for even one salad from market to restaurant), price, and regularity. Most larger restaurants "get their produce from purveyors, not cute stands with wicker baskets," confirmed Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy.
"Farmers markets have gotten really expensive and really competitive," Jenkins explained. "When I first came to New York in '99, there were not so many of us going to the farmers market, and it was easier to wander in." Now, she laments, "the chefs come along and clear out the really great stuff. And there are bigger restaurants with more people at their disposal to go and buy bigger quantities of stuff."
If Sara Jenkins can't even get the tomatoes she wants, what's there for the rest of us? I thought chefs had spoiled the market. As it turns out, I was very wrong: More local produce for restaurants means more—not less—produce for the rest of us, too.
"The farmers market wouldn't exist if the restaurants weren't buying." That's according to Chef Jeremiah Stone of Contra and Wildair, who's been going to the market for the past ten years and buying for restaurants there for the past five. And If I'm listening to him, I should be thanking the chefs at the market, not snubbing them. Here's why.
"With very, very few exceptions, farmers won't reserve things they don't [also] have for retail sale, unless it was specifically ordered and/or grown for said chef," Patti Jackson of Delaware and Hudson, wrote to me in an email. Most special or limited items are still sold on a first come-first served basis.
Farmers will email and tell you that they have golden goose eggs, but these will only be on the table—and the chef, who finished mopping their kitchen at 1 A.M., will then try to figure out if it's worthwhile to get there at 9 A.M. to buy them, and how they can sell them [at the restaurant] at the premium price it will cost, and if they can capitalize on it before their competitors (...and then fall asleep on the couch with an unopened beer and their clogs still on and miss out anyhow!).
Okay, so my black raspberry buyout was an exception. But what kinds of market items are grown or reserved specially for chefs? It turns out that most of it is not what I would want to bring (or care about bringing) home to cook with anyway. Rather than reserving large amounts of the most perfect sugar plums or highly-coveted heirloom tomatoes, chefs are asking farmers to save particular parts of plants (or particularly-sized and shaped fruits and vegetables).
Greg Baxtrom, who oversees much of the Greenmarket purchasing for Olmsted, where he is the chef-owner, made the distinction for me: "They're not growing for us, but they're picking specifically for us."
Baxtrom and his team, for example, might not be particular about exactly what type of summer squash they get, but they do care, more than you or I would, about what that squash looks like: "It could be whatever type of squash, but it has to have a general shape and size" in order to maintain the appearance of the dish and make sure the cooking technique will be consistent.
Similarly, Chef Stone of Contra asks for farmers to set aside the flowers of herbs or those grown to a specific size or age—parts of the plant that many of us would not want. Like Baxtrom, he won't ask a farmer to grow a specific variety of something—he's looking for certain sizes and shapes. And he's more likely to experiment with a plant grown in a certain way than he is a particular seed variety.
Or, after the harvest, he'll specify how the item should be handled, asking a farmer to keep bunches of herbs in the truck instead of bundling it up so that he can access them as unbroken as possible. These are details the average home cook, not as concerned about presentation, wouldn't be as invested in.
In the same way that a farm might set up a CSA to have a guaranteed, often upfront source of capital, a farm might establish a relationship with a restaurant to stablize their inherently precarious business.
Sisha Ortuzar, co-founder of 'Wichcraft, has been sourcing tomatoes from Eckerton Hill Farm—a favorite Greenmarket stand; several of the chefs I spoke to mentioned it to me—since his time at Gramercy Tavern in the late '90s. Now, 'Wichcraft's serving a seasonal BLT with Eckerton Hill Farm tomatoes, which launched August 1 and is available through the end of tomato season. Ortuzar explained that the farmer-chef relationship provides a more stable economic relationship for farmers, who "can account for what we will use during the season, and at what rate, allowing them to properly plan for demand when they plant."
Relying solely on the Greenmarket can have its ups and downs for farms based on many factors, like inclement weather and spending long hours on a stand instead of tending to the farm. By having relationships with restaurants like ours, farms are able to depend on a constant revenue stream.
While Eckerton Hill Farm has had to scale-up its tomato harvest to meet the needs of restaurants and consumers, when I visited the stand on an early Wednesday morning a few weeks ago, there were plenty of heirlooms—and they told me, reiterating Jackson's point, that there are no special types that don't make it to the stand.
So the farmer-chef relationship makes it possible for farmers to come to the Greenmarket and sell to consumers in the first place, and it also means that there's greater variety of goods to choose from. When chefs popularize ingredients, farmers have more incentive to plant those seeds for the next year, knowing their harvest will be sold. That means a greater diversity of produce for all of us: Restaurants create demand for ingredients like foraged wild watercress or ramps among home cooks—and that means farmers find it worthwhile to bring them to local markets. (On a recent Saturday, I spied an unrecognizable herb at the Greenmarket. When I asked the farmer what it was, he told me it was salad burnet, cucumber-flavored and popular in England, and he explained, unprompted, that April Bloomfield likes to use it.)
The exchange of information between chefs and farmers also has a carry-over effect onto us consumers, too. When Baxtrom buys a large quantity of something unusual, like red watercress, at the market, he gets asked by shoppers and farmers both about his plans: The man who sells trout, for example, might want to start selling watercress, which Baxtrom pairs it with. And Chef Stone said that farmers will ask him how he's using the ingredient, then share that information with their customers.
"As a chef, you travel and live somewhere else, you see different things," Stone said. And when they take those observations and share them with farmers and shoppers back home, "you introduce information." The "hunger of chefs to learn more, to experiment and use different ingredients" ultimately benefits all of us—even if it means fewer black raspberries. Or no asparagus by 11 A.M. at the start of the season.
Have you ever had the experience of being bought-out at the farmers market? Tell us in the comments below!