Restauranteurs and chefs depend on local growers and purveyors
When restaurant chefs have steady access to high-quality fresh ingredients, a doorway to innovation is opened. However, finding access to top-notch produce is often a chef’s greatest challenge. Let’s face it, folks: Fruits, herbs and vegetables are sensitive, have a short shelf life and, particularly when buying organic products, can be quite expensive. In fact, weather, soil issues, proper pollination and insect threat are all realities that challenge farmers which, in turn, makes produce a tricky business for distributors, chefs and consumers.
When tasked with writing this article, I took a considerate amount of time trying to define what growing and supplying fresh, wholesome foods meant for myself. What I identify as fresh, someone else might not. What is the meaning of “fresh?” Does the fact that the pears or beans or broccoli didn’t come out of can or freezer bag make them fresh? There must be more to it than that. Realizing I was in need of expert advice concerning what home-grown freshness really meant, I enlisted the help of a small farmer, a food distributor and a chef.
Carly Gillespie is familiar name in the Salt Lake gardening and farming community. She, along with Coleman Riedesel, is a co-owner of Backyard Urban Gardens, aka BUG Farms, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) based in the Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake City. Since 2010, Gillespie and Riedesel have been using organic methods to produce a wide variety of vegetables. With under two acres of planted plots, BUG Farms plants over 60 varieties of vegetables annually, which supports about 100 CSA memberships and weekly appearances at local farmers markets.
I asked Gillespie about her and Riedesel’s Salt Lake green spot, and what types of practices they’ve adopted to ensure freshness. “Our practices, when it is time to harvest a crop—whether it be leeks, tomatoes or greens—is to pick as early in the morning as possible before the vegetables become weary with field heat,” she says. “If we absolutely have to pick during the heat of the day, once picked the vegetables are immediately dunked into ice cold water to shake off the heat, and then we move them immediately into our walk-in cooler.”
With a short harvest season (for BUG Farms it’s just May through October), and because it is a CSA-based business where customers pre-commit to weekly or bi-weekly deliveries, growing with an eye to freshness is key. Gillespie’s explanation of how she defines freshness was like opening a window into her vision for BUG and what she feels is important for her customers. “The advantage BUG Farms has over large producers is we can get our vegetables to people so much faster,” she says. “Produce loses its nutritional value very quickly. The nutrient value of a vegetable consumed the day it is picked versus five days after it’s picked is huge. The quicker you can eat the vegetable, the more nutrients you get. Fresh isn’t just about how a vegetable looks, it’s about what your body is gaining from it.”
On an overcast, wintery day, I drove past the airport to an area of Salt Lake I had never seen before: West Harold Gatty Drive. My destination? Nicholas and Co. to meet with Scott Albert, vice president of sales for Salt Lake City and a produce devotee. A Utah-transplant from New Hampshire, Albert began his food career in 1998 with a mere $5,000 investment to open Campagne, a small food distributor and storefront in Park City. “I wanted to be here for the Olympics; that’s’ what really brought me to Utah. I just knew I needed a plan,” he says. Campagne Specialty Foods was a fine-foods distributor specifically dedicated to supporting the ingredients utilized in local restaurants. “When we started, restauranteur Bill White only had Grappa, and the food scene in Park City was just forming,” Albert recalls. Quickly, Campagne honed in to become “super produce focused.” “We were bringing in wild mushrooms, arugula, specialty greens and micro greens at a time when no one else was.” After several years, he and his business partner amicably parted ways for new adventures. “He wanted to become a private chef, I wanted to stay in produce,” Albert says.
Nicholas and Co., a third-generation Salt Lake City-headquartered food and distribution company, soon came calling. Albert was hired in 2005 as their produce manager to help repair the (then) company’s poor produce reputation. “Produce is the No. 1 difficult thing to get restaurants to trust,” Albert points out.
Over time, in addition to purchasing produce primarily from California, he began turning to local farms. Nicholas and Co. currently works with five local farms to supply vegetables and fruits, mostly in Northern Utah. They also work with a secondary company to handle issues such as the aforementioned field heat concerns (albeit their system is a bit fancier than BUG Farms) and consolidation. “A big part of winning the fresh war is how quickly produce can get to its final destination.” Albert says. “Our strategy is to work closely with our supplier partners to consolidate in one location for order pick-up. Our trucks can drive to one spot to pick-up produce sourced from multiple farms rather than traveling to each farm individually. This allows our produce to arrive at the warehouse sooner, fresher, and then we can get it to the restaurants with the best possible flavor and condition.”
Albert also says that Nicholas and Co.’s produce offerings are now 100 percent GMO-free. It’s a source of pride that’s obvious while sitting across from him and observing his pleasure in this particular accomplishment. Elaborating on how a GMO-free vegetable or fruit is also an identifying factor in the definition of freshness, he says, simply, “There’s nothing else in it; the food is pure.”
Chef and restauranteur Matthew Harris of Tupelo in Park City agrees. “I am always looking for each ingredient to stand on its own, without manipulation such as added salt and/or sugars,” he says.
A native of Atlanta, Ga., Harris has worked and studied at destination restaurants in his home town and cities including New York and San Francisco. He’s traveled the country and around the world to meet with farmers, ranchers, fishermen and cheesemongers. Each of these experiences was foundational in the formation of Tupelo. “I wanted decidedly American cuisine with heavy global influences and hints of my southern heritage,” Harris says.
Perusing Tupelo’s menu, all the elements of Harris’ desired marriage of high-quality ingredients, preparation and execution are apparent. Just look at the starters with offerings ranging from buttermilk biscuits with honey butter to worldly dishes such as barbecued octopus with red bean stew, red pepper vinegar, kale and pickled lemons.
When reading the entrées menu, it’s easy to see that Harris and his kitchen team are local food enthusiasts. “We want the seasonal foods we use in the restaurant to travel as short a distance as possible,” he says. “We have so much available to us: mushrooms from Southern Utah, squash from Cache Valley, Green River melons.” And, one of his favorites, Bingham City peaches and apricots. Harris then walks through a dish he loves to make when these fruits are available. He seeds the peaches or apricots (he assures either would work). The fruit is then introduced to olive oil and a simple syrup seasoned with lavender, Champagne vinegar and salt. The fruit is Cryovaced to infuse the flavors and condense the cell structure. After, the fruit is sliced, tossed again in the simple syrup and served with fresh arugula, shaved red onion and smoked blue cheese. Heaven.
Referring to produce, herbs and other ingredients grown nearby, Harris says, “I want close, local, and regional, so it doesn’t have to travel as far. It will be fresher.”