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Maximizing Profits: Chef and Farmer Partnerships

“They really want feedback, and if you say, ‘Your greens aren’t peppery enough’ or ‘The texture of these fraises des bois is not right,’ they say, ‘I’ll work on it.’” - Sherry Yard

Saddle up, trend watchers! It’s time to start checking menus and grilling servers to discover whether one of the industry’s most hyped forecasts is coming to pass. The promise: A chef-farmer alliance will blossom across the nation, rooted in a mutual passion for freshness and quality. Together these tastemakers are expected to invigorate the profile and profits of American dining—and farming, for that matter—with a new standard for pristine ingredients and ample flavor.


Other trends of the moment support this forecast. Many of these farm-connected

chefs, for instance, are young owners or partners in small, informal restaurants where

they formulate and execute their own menus. Taking inspiration from the French

nouvelle cuisine chefs of 30 years ago, they declare: “You cannot be better than your



Meanwhile, restaurant goers have become much more knowledgeable about such

subjects as organic produce and sustainable agriculture, and many are willing to pay more

for purity, freshness, and novel flavors.


Buying Better

The challenge for the chef is to find growers who can provide these just-picked

ingredients with the assurance that they will be fresher and tastier than anything coming

through the conventional distribution system. “What’s really amazing is the farmers’

attitudes,” comments Sherry Yard, executive pastry and owner of Helms Bakery in

Culver City, California. “They really want feedback, and if you say, ‘Your greens aren’t

peppery enough’ or ‘The texture of these fraises des bois is not right,’ they say, ‘I’ll work

on it.’”


Some chefs visit farms themselves, whereas others send a sous chef or hire a

shopper to do it. They also may receive deliveries directly from the farm or from a

traditional distributor who has been convinced to include specialty and organic items in

the product mix. Of late, the spotlight is on farmers’ markets, which grew from around

1,700 in 1994 to almost 8,000 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


“Passion begets passion,” says Illinois grower David Cleverdon, a retired

commodities trader whose Kinnikinnick Farm booth is one of the gems of Chicago’s

Green City Market. “We’re very proud of our asparagus and price it accordingly.

I wondered if the price was too high, then, at midnight, a chef called to order 45

pounds. ‘I’ve never tasted asparagus like that in my life,’ he said. It pumped me up.”



The Right Fit

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for chef-farmer collaborations—among consumers

as well as chefs—there are gaps of awareness on both sides that can lead to failure. To

provide information and advice, a group called the North Central Initiative for Small

Farm Profitability undertook a study titled “Approaching Foodservice Establishments

with Locally Grown Products.” It is a survey of members of the Chefs Collaborative,

a national organization that promotes sustainable cuisine and consumption of local and

seasonal ingredients.


A majority of respondents, 91 percent of them chefs at independent restaurants,

said buying locally grown food and listing new types and varieties of ingredients have

helped sales and improved profits. They praised the freshness, quality, and taste of

the garden produce, were pleased at the opportunity to deal directly with growers, and

indicated that the availability of more products would encourage them to purchase more.

Further, the chefs called for the establishment of “clearinghouses” to provide easier

access to local producers and products.


Among the most popular products from small family farms are: artisanal or

farmstead (sometimes organic) cheeses and eggs; grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, and

chicken; salad mixes, mushrooms, heirloom potatoes, and tomatoes; artisan breads; and

honey. According to the chefs, four of the top five obstacles to marketing these involved

ordering and delivery. The ideal, they say, is “getting the right product in the right

quantity to the right place at the right time.”


A prime example is David Cleverdon, who used to deliver to his restaurant clients

after or during farmers’ markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Now he continues to

follow the market schedule, but has pleased his chefs by delivering to them on Tuesdays

and Fridays. “Business had grown to the point that I can’t handle both my clients and

the market from one truck. This way, I cut the truck’s downtime in half and was able to

smooth out my production cycles at the farm.”


Rick Bayless, chef-owner of Chicago’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo,

mitigates these concerns by employing a full-time gardener to grow specialty ingredients

at his home and contracting with farmers to provide large-volume items through the

growing season with payment placed in escrow accounts. (Written contracts are rare,

however; most grower-chef agreements are sealed with a handshake.)



Food Forecast

Peter Hoffman, chef-owner of the farm-to-table venue Back Forty in Manhattan’s East

Village, and Back Forty West in the former Prince Street location of his iconic Savoy

restaurant, believes the alliance will continue to grow stronger. “Chefs are the best

publicists specialty small farms can have,” says Hoffman, a former president of the

Chefs Collaborative. “We think about quality all the time and believe in the need to

continually raise the bar. We taste a lot of product and develop educated palates. Our

recommendations mean something, and they ripple out to other chefs and consumers.”


“As the middleman fades away,” Hoffman adds, “we need to rebuild the

infrastructure and revise the logistics of moving product. It will take a while, but it is

happening.” He describes a project at the Cornell University Extension Service that

succeeded in developing the Farm to Chef Express delivery service working with farmers

in two upstate counties and restaurants in New York City. “It began mid-summer 2004

with five farmers and five chefs and took in $500,” Hoffman reports. “By 2006, there

were 30 farmers and 25 chefs selling almost $400,000 of locally grown products.”


Busy chefs often prefer direct delivery to shopping at a farmers’ market, though

many go to market in search of new suppliers, to socialize—if briefly—with fellow chefs,

and, as Tim Kelley, executive chef at Chapel Grille in Cranston, Rhode Island, puts it, “to

seek inspiration.”


The give and take of face-to-face relationships is also good for the farmers.

Many admit that working directly with chefs has helped to solidify their commitment

to sustainable agriculture. Their chef partnerships also provide a unique view of the

workings of a professional kitchen, and the exigencies of the foodservice side of agro-
business. This education process, which has been on-going for nearly two decades, not

only has resulted in the proliferation of farmers’ markets, but also in the availability of

fresher products on the market and in the every increasing mix of farm-to-table foods.

Pleasure and goodwill appear to permeate farmers’ markets everywhere, but there are

critics who speak of them as “petting zoos” with the farmers on display. Moreover,

flashes of temper are not uncommon after long drives that sometimes lead to bureaucratic

hassle, lack of recognition, and limited sales because of bad weather (and, it should be

noted, inflated prices).


Prize-winning Wisconsin cheesemaker Bill Butler stopped making the 300-

mile drive to Chicago a couple of years ago when he failed to make chef contacts at the

weekly Green City Market. “A few chefs would appear at 9 a.m., pose for photos, then

disappear. We covered our costs, but the time and distance crushed us.”



Growing a Relationship

The Portland, Oregon, chapter of the Chefs Collaborative has produced a Farmer-Chef

Connection report offering advice on building and maintaining long-term relationships

between chefs and farmers. Their guidelines add up to a recommendation that both sides

exercise good manners and trust. Chefs appreciate on-time delivery (not during service)

of the full amount of product agreed on. Farmers should call in advance if there is a

shortfall or if they are running late. They should provide samples when making sales calls

and find time, at least occasionally, to dine in a customer’s restaurant. (The opportunity

to develop “positive relationships with producers” ranks high on a list of why chefs

buy locally grown foods. For example, a chat over coffee may reveal gaps in the chef ’s

repertoire that the farmer could fill.)


For their part, farmers hope chefs will establish a routine schedule for orders,

deliveries, and payment of bills. Before planting, a farmer would like to know if the chef

intends to use a product for the duration of the growing season or will require only a

few deliveries. Farmers appreciate being consulted about growing seasons, methods of

cooking various products, and alternative varieties. Chefs can cultivate trust by being

flexible and patient when bad weather interrupts the schedule. Last but not least, they

should expect to pay full price.


A Cook’s Choice

Alice Waters, who launched her ongoing campaign to gain respect for pure food more

than 40 years ago from the kitchen of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, finds the answer to

the chef-farmer equation in a question: “As a cook, would you rather fill a computer-
generated order or steal a few minutes to talk with the eccentric fellow who has

arrived with a basket of just-picked string beans? The new generation of cooks gets it

completely. They feel an immediate rapport with the grower. It’s much more exciting to

talk to him, to cook and eat his food, and more and more people want to. So I am ever so

hopeful that sometime soon, we will have year-round, city-supported wholesale markets

to provide a source for small-farmer-grown foodstuffs.”

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