Most chefs have to drive – or at least walk – to get to a farmers market. Cedar’s executive chef Aaron McCloud just steps out the front door. Situated at the center of Washington, D.C.’s heavily trafficked Penn Quarter neighborhood, the FRESHFARM Market is open Thursday afternoons from late March until the end of December. Every week, McCloud takes a swing through the sprawl of stalls to source fresh produce and proteins for his New American focused menu. “We cook whatever’s good that day,” he says. “So we reprint the menu three or four times a week.”
Strolling through the tables and tents, the smell of fresh cut flowers, a bounty of herbs, and wood smoke – courtesy of a mobile pizza oven – mix together to create an intoxicating blend. A violinist plays off to one side, his energetic melody intertwining with the chatter of shoppers and the clatter of commerce. McCloud first stops in at Gunpowder Bison & Trading Co. to look at some Delmonico steaks that he thinks might be a good entrée at dinner service that night. Ultimately, he decides to hold off on purchasing them until he sees what else is available this week.
After chatting with some farmers to find out whether they offer wholesale pricing for restaurants and to exchange contact information with vendors he hasn’t worked with before, he picks up a two chunks of slightly nutty Piedmont cheese from Everona Dairy. But the purchase doesn’t inspire him as a main course component. Then he comes across bags of stinging nettles at the Evensong Farm stand. “Maybe a quick sauté with these in some saffron butter and the Delmonico steaks,” he thinks out loud. For good measure, he picks up two-dozen just-gathered eggs.
McCloud isn’t the only one taking advantage of the just-harvested bounty on display today. “It’s a chef-centric market,” says Ann Harvey Yonkers, executive co-director FRESHFARM Markets. “There’s always a plethora of white jackets shopping.” Some of Washington, D.C.’s top chefs frequent this market, including Fiola’s Fabio Trabocchi, Bibiana’s Nicholas Stefanelli, Poste’s Dennis Marron, and the chefs from José Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup restaurants. They don’t just shop there – they’re intimately involved. Many of them have done live cooking demos for the Chef At Market program, while two highly respected chefs sit on the board – Nora Pouillon from Restaurant Nora and Cathal Armstrong from Restaurant Eve.
If chefs can’t make this Thursday market or are seeking out different vendors, they have plenty of choices. There are nearly 100 markets of varying size and frequency in and around the District. Chefs across the country are seeing their options expand on this front. Local Harvest, a searchable database of farmers markets, family farms, and sustainable producers, lists almost 6,000 farmers markets in the United States.
San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza
A growing interest from consumers about sourcing
These markets are feeding into a growing interest from consumers about sourcing. “Whether you’re in the middle of nowhere or a booming metropolitan area, everybody is becoming is more savvy about what they eat,” says Jodi Liano, co-author of Cooking From The Farmers’ Market. “It’s not just high-income foodies that are paying attention to this issue anymore.”
Farmers markets present a unique opportunity for chefs. “They are the ultimate in fresh, seasonal, and local,” says John Ivanko, co-author of Farmstead Chef. “So it’s a wonderful way for a restaurant to differentiate what it’s doing and for a chef to show off their skills.”
It’s these elements that appeal to McCloud. “I’ve weaned the restaurant off of buying the same things year-round, so we don’t have to buy from Chile and California,” he says. “We’re focusing more on our backyard – Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.”
Across the country at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, approximately 120 vendors have been stocking some of the city’s most high-profile chefs at the tri-weekly market for nearly 20 years. “They’re a huge part of our community,” says Liz Hunt, the marketing and public relations coordinator for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), which runs the market. “They use it as a place to be inspired.”
Over 80 top toques – including Chris Cosentino from Incanto, Charles Phan from the Slanted Door. and Mark Sullivan from Spruce – are a part of the market’s complimentary Chef Program, which provides members with preferential parking spaces and shopping carts. They can either shop on whim or pre-arrange with vendors to pick up specified allotments of designated products. Their involvement extends beyond their role as customers – many give cooking demonstrations, hold book signings, and cook at the market’s fundraising dinners.
Though chefs have a passion for shopping here, it’s also a necessity to ensure their establishments’ survival. “Our whole restaurant culture is ingredient driven,” says Hunt. “If you’re not using the best, tastiest, most interesting, and freshest ingredients, you’re just not going to compete. You’re going to seem like a hotel banquet hall.”
San Francisco may be at the vanguard of the modern American food scene, but that doesn’t mean that restaurants elsewhere in the country can’t apply similar philosophies to their menus. One of the most attractive elements of farmers markets is that they expose chefs to unique ingredients that are oftentimes not available anywhere else. “There’s always seasonal interest in items like foraged ramps and green garlic,” says Yonkers. “As well as harder to find items, like heritage breed pigs, quail eggs, and different breeds of chickens.”
Freshly plucked mushrooms are a favorite
Another favorite at this time of year is freshly plucked mushrooms. At the FRESHFARM Market in Penn Quarter the mushroom stand – “It’s officially called the Mushroom Stand,” one of the vendors clarifies – is overflowing with royal trumpets, pom poms, maitakes, portobellos, criminis, and several other varieties of specialty fungi. Since one of McCloud’s purveyors sources through this operation, he decides against buying any.
Though most markets have at least one stall that specializes in either cultivated or wild mushrooms, there are some instances where they are absent or they don’t offer particular varieties. To find dealers, chefs can simply search the Mushroom Growers’ Newsletter’s farms online list. For freshly foraged fungi, check in with the North American Mycological Association, which has 75 affiliated chapters across the country.
No matter what chefs are considering sourcing from farmers markets, they need to remain flexible. “Have a wide-open idea of what you’re looking for,” says Liano. “Unless you’ve made prearrangements with producers, don’t assume that any specific product is going to be available.” Many fruits and vegetables are only available for short periods, so understand that supplies could dry up at any time due to weather issues, crop loss, or demand.
Liano recommends walking through the whole market once before making any purchases. “There’s often more than one vendor selling the same product,” she says. “Take advantage of the fact that you can pick up products, feel them, and taste them.”
Ivanko adds that shoppers who show up early are often richly rewarded. “That way you get the best selection,” he says. “And it’s had as little exposure to the elements of that day as possible.”
Wherever they ultimately choose to shop, it’s not unusual for chefs to receive a discounted rate. “I expect to pay a wholesale price,” says McCloud. “Because I’m going to buy more than your casual home shopper. In the long run, it’s in the best interest of the farm.” At the FRESHFARM Market in D.C., most vendors offered between 5-30% off the sticker price to restaurant clients.
Knowing the face of your farmer
Goods purchased in this manner may still cost more than if they are obtained through a commercial purveyor. However, if diners are aware of the specialty sourcing, they are often willing to pay a premium. “People want to know the face of their farmer, beekeeper, butcher, and baker,” says Ivanko. “So share those stories of the ingredients, the food, and farmer with your guests, because they take a great tasting meal to the next level.”
Though some vendors may be able to process credit cards or accept checks, many small operations are cash only. Chefs should come prepared – preferably with small bills – or run the risk of going home empty-handed. Receipts are a rarity at farmers markets, so bring your own receipt book to keep track of purchase. “It can be hard to have a paper trail,” admits McCloud.
To guarantee consistency, it’s often possible for chefs to place orders with farmers for them for pick up at the market or to be delivered to the restaurant. “Vendors prefer to pack goods up and designate them,” says Yonkers. “That way they know they have what their clients need.”
The key to successfully utilizing a market on a consistent basis is to build one-on-one relationships. “All of my relationships have come about from me frequenting a farmer’s stall at the market and just talking to them about what I’m doing with their products,” says Liano. “It’s all very low tech.”
For McCloud, it’s all about building respect. “You have to get them to trust the fact that when their products hit your kitchen, everyone will respect them,” he says. “You can’t overcook it; it can’t end up in the garbage. Someone put their heart and soul into it.”
After completing a full circuit, McCloud returns to the bison stand and picks up 10 Delmonico steaks. Back at the restaurant, he sorts through his bags to see what he’s foraged. Then he starts playing around until right before service when he has to print the new menus.
That night, his Penn Quartet Market “Inspiration” offerings include the Egg ‘n’ Cheese starter, which stars a sunny side up Evensong Farm egg topped with Everona Piedmont and smoked tomato jam on brioche. The entrée special is the Gunpowder Farms bison served with Evensong Farm stinging nettles, Mountain View Farm Swiss chard, Garner’s Produce kale flowers, and a saffron emulsion. It’s a taste of the season and the region.