this piece was originally published February 23 in Seedstock, the blog for sustainable agriculture focusing on startups, entrepreneurship, technology, urban agriculture, news and research
Farmers and chefs have a lot in common. They both work long, often uncomfortable hours. They both suffer the whims of weather, from ruined crops to cancelled reservations, and they both depend on delivering a stellar product and pleasing others for their livelihood.
To make it in food — from the field to the kitchen — you need passion. To make it in the food business, you need communication.
Communicate — Early & Often
No one knows your crops like you do, but for chefs to step-up and incorporate your product into their culinary rotation, they need as much lead time as possible to plan. No chef would be excited to see a mountain of fava beans show up unexpected on their doorstep….even if they were the absolute freshest and PERFECT!
Restaurants have a rhythm and, with a little lead time, they can make the proper staffing arrangements to tackle such a mountain of favas. In fact, given just a bit of lead-time, a chef can do all kinds of things that would highlight your harvest. (A special fava menu for the bounty you just laid upon the kitchen’s doorstep!) But they need to know what to expect as far in advance as possible.
As a farmer, if you can work to sync your harvest with the rhythm and pace of the restaurant, it will make for a much easier working relationship. Work the schedule backwards. Start by asking what the peak volume days are for the restaurant, then how much time they need to prepare whatever it is you are bringing. This will give you a better understanding of what it will take for you to deliver, and what it will take for the chef to do something great with your product.
Share Your Knowledge
Farmers are sitting on a ton of information about the food they grow. This is inspiring information for chefs! To show off your work to best effect in the dining room, chefs need to know more of what you know. The best way to transmit this knowledge to the chef, and then for the chef to pass it to the kitchen staff and wait staff and consumers, is to put it in writing. Nothing fancy is required. An organized email or a printed one-pager that’s delivered with your products will do the trick. The description from the seed catalog and a few lines about how they were grown would be fantastic.
Beyond heirloom products, farmers often have heirloom knowledge. Chefs don’t like waste, and as they begin working with local and artisan production, they increasingly need to know how to pickle, preserve, butcher, and more. This is to keep the bounty working for them through the peak and into the menu long enough to actually use the complete harvest. Chefs are sensitive to what goes into raising food, and using everything to the fullest is how they honor and respect the production. That said, many cooks today lack the “old-school” education needed to properly execute these traditional preserving or preparation techniques. If there is something in your family’s past, or some bits of knowledge that have been passed on to you as a farmer or artisan food producer, ask the chef if they are interested in trying out your methods. It might bring a new dimension to your relationship. The more ways they have to use your product, the more they can buy from you.
Chefs may want more than they know. They might want a common varietal because they don’t know what else is out there. Chefs have become accustomed to standard products because they’ve been cut off from the actual farmer or fisherman. Ideally, as the connections between farmers and chefs are solidified, they can become partners in experimentation, and partners in building strong, diverse food communities.
Farmer hours and chef hours are very different. Come up with a mutually acceptable time to talk. This will make communicating much easier and more efficient for you both.
Provide the chef with a volume estimate of what they can expect. You know your production inside and out, but don’t assume the chef intrinsically understands or can estimate how much he will receive. Remember, a restaurant kitchen is a very busy place with many moving parts. Even if told two weeks in advance how many cases of your special heirloom vegetables they can expect, chances are good that the chef will have forgotten the details of the case count. A gentle reminder will keep the communication flowing and eliminate surprises.
The Benefits of Understanding
When the connection between producer and chef is reestablished, great things happen. Take a look at Chef Richard Garcia at the 606 Congress, located in the Boston Waterfront Renaissance. It’s a big hotel, and he serves a lot of fish. After establishing a local relationship with a few fishermen, Chef Garcia has been able to move beyond stating exactly which fish is going to be on the menu. The fisherman will call or text him from the boat about what they’re catching. One day it could be haddock, the next day it might be sea robin. His waiters are all up to speed on the program and share the information willingly with the customers. His customers know that it will be the freshest fish that happened to land that day, and it will be from one of his local fishermen. The chef gets variety and the freshest fish available. The fishermen get a market for everything that lands in their net.
By keeping each other in the communications loop, they manage each other’s expectations and needs for a mutually beneficial business relationship and a more sustainable local food system.
About Alisha & Polly’s company: Polish Partnerships
Polish is a branding and communications company for the new gastroconomy. By creating strong partnerships with food and beverage producers, hospitality groups and industry innovators, we go the extra distance, transforming hopes, dreams and expectations into tangible, sustainable and polished realities.