Coast to Coast

10 Oct 2006

Last fall, in preparation for Terra Madre 2006, Carlo Petrini, founder and president of Slow Food, toured the United States from coast to coast, He met with a handful of American chefs to personally invite them to Turin for the conference and to speak with them about their local farmers’ markets. What he discovered was that a rising number of chefs across the United State have made a commitment to use fresh, seasonal, sustainable ingredients in their restaurant kitchens. In many cases, the chefs have partnered with local organizations to establish a new breed of farmers’ markets, which have become an integral part of the urban landscape over the past twenty years.

The markets are operated either by the city government, or more recently and more notably, by non-profit organizations that define the markets’ integrity by requiring farmers to submit an application and agree to yearly farm inspections conducted by the market staff. The farmers are charged a minimal fee, often based on a percentage of their sales, to occupy a farm stand at the market. The market funds go directly to support consumer awareness and public education programs, like cooking demonstrations or chef-led market tours.

In addition, chefs visit the markets on a regular basis to discover what is currently available and to deepen their connections with the farmers, supporting them with positive feedback and an open checkbook. Market-goers are witness to the chefs’ presence at the farmers’ stands, and are motivated to ask questions and return to the market more frequently. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with the chefs that Carlo Petrini encountered last fall. From San Francisco to Chicago, to Washington DC, they were eager to talk about the development of their local farmers’ markets and relations between farmers, chefs and market patrons.

San Francisco: America’s culinary frontier
San Francisco in the Seventies, with its hippie mentality and abundance of fertile farmland, was a natural breeding ground for urban farmers’ markets. Bay Area chefs and the civically-minded cooking public, frustrated with having to shuttle back and forth from local gardens and not-so-local farm stands, in order to access the fresh produce they demanded, banded together to find a solution to the problems of demand and distribution. Led by Alice Waters, Berkeley’s best regarded culinary pioneer, chefs from across the region formed local organizations to develop and sustain new urban market venues attracting the farmers from whom they were previously sourcing their produce.

Amaryll Schwertner, executive chef & co-owner of Boulettes Larder, a small restaurant and specialty food store located in San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Building, was raised by her Hungarian grandmother to become the ultimate urban forager. She is quick to mention the enormous amount of effort it requires to gain access to quality ingredients in the United States. When she first moved to San Francisco, over 25 years ago, chefs relied heavily on local gardeners (defined by Amaryll as very small-scale farmers) for fresh produce. At the time, it became obvious too that the growers had to create more of a demand for their produce. For Chef Schwertner, the transportation costs, limited availability of produce and the spontaneity required to work entirely with what I collected that day were indeed significant hurdles to overcome.

‘It takes a commitment to work this way,’ says Amaryll. ‘One must train oneself to work with the variability.’ Amaryll recalls that once a year she would join other like-minded chefs down at Greens Restaurant in Fort Mason for an organized tasting of the summer’s produce. ‘The tastings were the forerunner of today’s farmers’ market. We would invite everyone in the community food chain to come and explore what the summer had to offer.’ Amaryll and her friends used the tasting events to stimulate a market for fresh ingredients among the urban population.

Over the past couple of decades, Chef Schwertner has noticed a dramatic increase in the variety and number of markets in the region. She is a regular at the Ferry Building Farmers Market, founded in 1993 by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture; at the Berkeley Market, operated by the Ecology Center for over twelve years; and at the Alemany market, governed by the City of San Francisco since 1943. She proudly claims that all of the produce used in her restaurant comes directly from the farmers she encounters at the three markets.

Like many Bay Area chefs, she visits various markets in search of specific ingredients and is quite discriminating in her selection. ‘In my restaurant, I strive to serve food that has a context. The ingredients must be alive with flavor, beauty and nutrition. Chefs must educate their dining audience, by helping them to make the distinction between delicious, sustainably grown vegetables and their tasteless, commercially grown counterparts. I don’t know how many times I have had to explain that what looks like a carrot, often doesn’t taste like a carrot or sing like a carrot.’

In San Francisco, chefs have begun to nurture professional relations with farmers even outside the market stalls. Inspired by return trips to southern Italy, Victoria Libin, owner of A16, a pizzeria and wine bar, decided to open her restaurant with the help of a farmer she met at the Ferry Plaza Market. ‘ I have been shopping at the San Francisco markets since 1994 and am fortunate to have established a great relationship with the farmers. After my trip to Italy in 2003, I immediately contacted Andy Griffin, owner of Mariquita Farms and Terra Madre delegate in 2004. I begged him to grow the seeds that I brought back and thankfully he agreed. Now I can run down to the farmers market to buy Castelfranco radicchio for the restaurant.’

Victoria believes that it is her responsibility as a market patron and restaurant owner to further educate the public about where their food comes from. As she points out, ‘In developed countries, the majority of the population goes out to eat at restaurants. Therefore restaurant chefs are responsible in many ways for educating the public on what they are eating. The public is taking notice of the fact that chefs are building better relationships with their growers and purveyors. When a customer comes into the restaurant and enjoys something delicious off the menu, they will often ask where they can get it themselves. It brings me such joy to be able to tell them the name of the farmer who grew the Italian variety of chicory that they just ate, and where they can go to meet the grower in person. I will often see restaurant guests at the market purchasing items off our menu’.

More often than not, Victoria Libin comes across A16 patrons at the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which is indisputably the most well known, and heavily trafficked of the Bay Area Certified Farmers Markets. The Market is located in a parking lot directly outside the Ferry Plaza Building. The building itself is home to a number of stores and restaurants offering artisanal food products, including cheeses, seafood, meat, chocolates and baked goods. The Ferry Plaza Building and the Saturday Market have become the quintessential destination spot for food-driven tourism. Victoria notes, that ‘Serious shoppers are in and out of the Market by 9.30 am in order to avoid the unbearable crowds of tourists who come to gawk at the fresh produce and taste the assortment of prepared foods’.

According to fellow chef and market veteran, Traci Des Jardins, of Mijita Mexican restaurant, located inside the Ferry Plaza, ‘It’s a great pity that it is too crowded. I believe that a visit to the market sparks an idea in people’s heads about how to buy food. Tourists can’t purchase food the way a resident might, because they must go back to their hotels at the end of the day. However, after experiencing the sights and smells of the market, they might go back to their homes and seek out a farmers’ market in their city’.

Chicago: A beacon of hope in the Midwest
After his California sojourn, Carlo Petrini slowly began to make his way back east, stopping in Chicago for a taste of what the midwest region of the country had to offer. Only within the past two decades has Chicago’s urban population had any significant access to produce coming from local farms. During the mid-90s, a small group of farmers reached out to the chefs and food industry professionals for assistance in marketing their produce to the urban public. Finally, in 1999, Abby Mandel, a Chicago-based food writer, founded the Green City Market with funds gathered at a Chefs’ Auction. The Market has since developed into what Alice Waters has described as ‘one of the best sustainable efforts in the country’. The Wednesday Market is a source of limitless inspiration for many of the city’s top chefs, including Bruce Sherman of North Pond and Paul Kahan of Blackbird Restaurant.

Chef Sherman has been an active supporter of the market for over five years and currently sits on the Board of Directors, lending his years of kitchen experience to the organization. He is the first to note that the application process for the farmers has become considerably more stringent over the past years. ‘First and foremost, we question how the product is grown, then we consider quality. Fortunately this is a self-policing operation. 95 percent of the time, if it is grown sustainably, it will taste great as well.’

Bruce Sherman is encouraged by the positive changes he has seen in the quality of ingredients now accessible to the public in Chicago. He recognizes that farmers come to the Green City Market because they care about the clientele. ‘They want to sell to people who appreciate their craft.’ Fortunately, Chicago’s urban population has become increasingly exposed to fresh, regional cuisine at the city’s top restaurants. Chicagoans have come to depend on the Green City Market as where to find the tasty ingredients they discover when dining out.

As fellow chef Paul Kahan points out, ‘Most Americans have been conditioned to eat things that do not even taste good. You could enter a grocery store in the heart of American farmland, and nothing in the store is even edible’. Chef Sherman adds that, ‘In Europe, the markets cater to an audience that is predisposed to care about what they are eating. I am more cynical about Americans. I believe that ultimately people are driven by a selfish intent. There has been so much press recently about health issues related to food in the United States that the American public is finally taking real notice of where their food comes from. Europeans have been concerned with this for centuries, but only in the past 20 years have people begun to do this here. Hence our market mantra ‘Know your Farmer, Know your Food’.

Chicago chefs have witnessed an increase in consumer awareness at the Green Market, especially over the past five years. As Bruce suggests, ‘Whether or not people come to the market to learn, they inevitably do. Education is a by-product’. Both Bruce Sherman and Paul Kahan can be spotted every Wednesday, wandering among the Green City Market stalls, looking to see what is fresh that day, while getting to know their farmers during the process.

Washington DC: feeding America’s lawmakers
At the end of his trip, Carlo made a final stop in America’s capital before returning to Italy. Washington DC is home to the country’s oldest market in continuous operation. The Eastern Market, located directly east of the Capitol Building, has served the Capitol Hill community of presidents, politicians and activists since 1873. The market was originally built as part of a much-desired urbanization effort, aimed at providing the residents with an increased number of civil services, but in recent years, DC chefs and residents have expressed a need for additional, community-supported markets with superior quality control.
Founded in 1997, the Fresh Farm Market is a network of producer-only markets established by local chefs, farmers and activists interested in the integrity of market produce and aiming to provide the city with food exclusively from the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Farmers must submit a lengthy application form and pass regular farm visits by the organization’s knowledgeable staff. A consorted effort is being made to educate the DC’s downtown residents, many of whom moved from across the country to live in closer proximity to the US Government and national organizations.

One of the Market’s consumer education initiatives that consistently draws a large crowd is the ‘Chef At Market’ program. Local chefs, like Todd and Ellen Gray of Equinox Restaurant, are invited to the Sunday Market to conduct cooking demonstrations, tastings and book signings. When the Grays visit the Dupont Circle market, they often find themselves immersed in three-way ‘community crock pot’ discussions with other chefs, farmers and market patrons. According to Ellen, ‘visiting the market every Sunday really strengthens the market’s mission to create a sustainable urban-rural partnership that feeds our communities and maintains our working landscapes’.

Carlo Petrini’s visit to the United States laid the groundwork for an important discussion — How are chefs relating to their local food sources? — to be addressed in more detail at Terra Madre 2006. All of the American chefs who spoke with Carlo are eager to attend the conference, provided they can find someone to cover the strenuous physical demands and long restaurant hours while they are away. Once there, they look forward to cooking, speaking and eating with their local farmers in context of a global food community.

Marisa Huff is a collaborator at Slow Food San Diego

This article was first published in the Italian magazine Slowfood (number 20) published by Slow Food Editore last week

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