The Sourcerer's Apprentice
Diarist Valerie Broussard / June 2009
Curious about how chefs can best gather local foodstuffs, an enterprising grad student's prized internship produces a hands-on journal of practical insights. Diarist Valerie Broussard reflects on her on-the-job training.
Some call it foraging. Others refer to it as procurement, purchasing, or sourcing. No matter. As a master's degree student in the Food Culture and Communications program at The University of Gastronomic Sciences near Parma, Italy, I wanted to learn how chefs purchase directly from local producers. Best, I thought, would be to pursue an internship at the Northwest foods–focused restaurant The Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington. There, with the support of executive chef Keith Luce and proprietors Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck, I spent six weeks last year searching for local, organic, and sustainably raised produce, meat, seafood, and dairy products. And as I cold-called fishermen, scoured the Internet, collected business cards, and visited fishing docks, farms, and ranches, I discovered that sourcing is a challenging time-intensive process.
Luce asked me to start with seafood, knowing that it would be one of the more challenging food groups to source. One can visit a farm and see firsthand how the land is cultivated, what the animals are fed, how much space they're given to roam. But with seafood, the likelihood was slim that I could hitch a ride on a fishing vessel in Alaska to witness a wild salmon catch. So I started the process by consulting several guides: "Seafood Solutions: A Chef's Guide to Sourcing Sustainable Seafood" from Chefs Collaborative and "Sourcing Seafood: A Professional's Guide to Procuring Ocean-Friendly Fish and Shellfish" from Seafood Choices Alliance and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. I learned about the various sea species available in the Pacific Northwest and the fishing techniques used to catch and best preserve them.
Luce wanted me to search for the lesser known, underappreciated, yet abundant species that could be sustainably fished or harvested: gooseneck barnacles, sardines, octopus, squid, wolf eel, and sea cucumbers, among others. Anchovies aren't as popular as wild salmon, for example, possibly because many consumers may have eaten them only from a tin can. Perhaps the most effective way to change that perception is to serve them as Luce does—fresh Grays Harbor anchovies with dilled yogurt, lemon cucumbers, fennel, radishes, and brown butter. Jeremy Brown, the fisherman who sold us the anchovies, is an active member of the nonprofit Slow Food and was a delegate at Terra Madre, the international biennial conference in Turin, Italy, in both 2006 and 2008. It was through a University of Gastronomic Sciences graduate that I found Brown, and it was from one of the 500 fishermen belonging to his Bellingham, Washington Seafood Producers Cooperative who had been using live anchovies for bait that Luce procured a spare 20 pounds for The Herbfarm. He mentioned that other area chefs interested in sardines were having a tough time lining them up because even though sardine stocks are in great shape, without domestic demand much of the catch is sold for bait or fishmeal. He recognized that collectively chefs could influence availability and acknowledges that communication is a key factor in realizing its full potential.
Next was to search the suppliers' directory on the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's Web site and then call everyone listed as a fisherman, processor, or direct marketer. Some I spoke with were already finished with their seasons, others had minimum order requirements larger than we would need, and others didn't have the proper permits for direct marketing. Yet, I found a few contacts with potential to supply the restaurant with seafood.
Other valuable connections were made through word of mouth. Jim and Darcy Michener, based in the fishing village of Sitka, Alaska, approached Luce with a unique product they had been working hard to perfect: flaky sea salt processed like Maldon salt. When I mentioned that we were looking for direct sources of Alaska seafood, they spouted off names of commercial fishermen, friends, and neighbors they could personally recommend. They led us to a cultivator of oysters, a family who dives for sea cucumbers, and a king crab fisherman.
Although Woodinville is very close to the Canadian border, which falls within the "local" parameters, purchasing a perishable food product from a foreign country was nearly impossible. I was put in touch with a willing seller, yet when I placed the order and it was time to ship it, the expense required to get it across the border wasn't financially sustainable. Shipping would have cost three times the amount of the order itself. The laws in place to prevent bioterrorism require extensive paperwork and delay the shipment by one to two days while it's held for testing.
For sources of meat, I searched Web sites such as EatWild.com, AmericanGrassfed.org, and LocalHarvest.org, which is also extremely useful in finding growers of produce. To find raw milk used for in-house cheesemaking, I turned to RealMilk.com and WestonAPrice.org. The Edible Communities publications are also a great way to become familiar with your region's foods (www.ediblecommunities.com).
Luce buys whole lamb from Jeff Rogers, a local sheep breeder who practices management intensive grazing (MIG). When he moves sheep to a new pasture, he keeps them in place with electric fences, which also deter predators. His lambs are taken to a slaughterhouse only half a mile away, minimizing preprocessing stress to the animals. Where they eat greatly affects the sheep's diet, which in turn affects the flavor of their meat. Rogers analyzes grass samples for nutritional value, stool samples for parasite counts, and excludes from breeding those animals prone to disease. During the winter, he prefers to have the sheep graze on land owned by his neighbor, Ted Andrews, president of an organic herb company. The land provides an abundant supply of grasses and plants beneficial to the sheep; the sheep stir up and fertilize the soil. In Rogers' and Andrews' arrangement, no money is exchanged. This principle of reciprocity allows local markets to thrive economically. It's an alternative system that, if adopted more widely, would contribute not only to the success of a more sustainable food supply but also to the creation of a stronger community.
Food supply chains are being reevaluated. Finding room for reciprocity within economic activities is a great start. Models such as the Seafood Producers Cooperative in Bellingham, Washington, or the informal working relationship between Rogers and Andrews could be implemented more widely. A new initiative in Sonoma County, California, called Fork & Shovel, which was founded by Barndiva restaurant owner Jil Hales, uses the Internet to connect area farmers with chefs, who keep different working hours: farmers tend to wake as chefs are going to sleep. Farmer members are asked to post available products and quantities on the site, while chef members are asked to check the site before shopping elsewhere. Fork & Shovel has tentative plans for a central drop-off point to streamline deliveries; the launch of an improved site with a mapping feature, allowing chefs to search by proximity to their restaurants; and the addition of ranchers and cheesemakers. Had a similar system been in place in Washington, I likely would have used it for The Herbfarm, because I found myself driving long distances for small quantities and sometimes only one or two types of products.
A similar arrangement is in place in Oregon and Washington, where Amy Grondin, who contracts as a "sustainable seafood and marketing consultant" when not fishing commercially in Alaska, acts as a liaison between buyers and local fishermen who need new markets.
Andrea Reusing, chef/owner of Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, offers this advice for chefs starting to source fresh, seasonal, and local: connect with someone who is already doing it. She believes "the more the merrier," because when restaurants share in volume, such as purchasing an entire cow, direct sales become more viable for the producers.
Just as chefs are more efficient in numbers, so are farmers, according to Brenda Langton, chef/owner of Spoonriver in Minneapolis. She suggests that farmers group together and take turns on deliveries, since it isn't very time- or cost-effective for each farmer to deliver to every customer. Langton asks farmers to notify her of bumper crops or produce with cosmetic damage that they need to move quickly. Unlike retail grocery stores, where produce on display must look perfect, chefs can work with these parameters, adding a special to the menu, making jam, or pickling vegetables. Tory Miller of L'Étoile in Madison, Wisconsin, believes in educating the waitstaff, empowering them to pass along the chef's philosophy to the customers, which in turn helps them justify spending $10 for a local grass-fed beef burger versus $6 for a conventional one.
As more chefs support small, local producers, access to their products will increase and local economies will grow. Creative solutions to distribution issues are becoming more widespread, and use of the Internet is invaluable to the process of sourcing locally. Becoming an active member of Slow Food and Chefs Collaborative is an excellent place to start networking. Ecotrust's Food & Farms Program hosts an annual Farmer-Chef Connection conference in the Pacific Northwest and hopes to create models that can be replicated anywhere. Try meeting local producers in person and talking to your fellow chefs about their needs. Or why not follow Luce's lead and take on an intern to get you started?