"The most important relationship I have in my restaurant is with the farmer," says Tamara Murphy, well-versed chef, co-owner of Seattle's Brasa Restaurant, and keynote speaker on Dec. 5 at the Spokane Athletic Club as part of the Farmer-Chef Connection, a gathering of 100 local chefs, ranchers, farmers and retailers galvanized to strengthen the fabric of local and seasonal food networks.
Murphy has spent 16 years in Seattle at two restaurants building these relationships with food producers. Her stated principle is to "go out of my way to learn about the farmers." She believes knowing the people who catch the fish, make the cheese, raise the livestock, craft the wine and grow the produce helps her to concoct food creations that taste better.
Sustainability, food security, and protecting the small farm/ranch way of life were issues undergirding the event.
"I'd love to see a day when local food producers and chefs come together and understand each other's craft," says Pete Tobin, instructor at the Culinary Academy of Spokane Community College.
"Sustainability means bringing the farmer to the chef," says fourth-generation farmer Fred Fleming of Shepherd's Grain. Growing Eastern Washington wheat means bringing the chef to the farm and onto the combine, but Shepherd's Grain's second mandate is to bring the farmer into the kitchen to see how hard chefs work.
For Lora Lee Misterly of Eastern Washington's Quillisascut Cheese, inviting chefs to a five-day farm school helps local restaurants utilize local ingredients and assists them in understanding the hard work and nuances that seasonality farmers and food producers face. Misterly's farm school, which has graduated 180 students since 2002, has also created a booklet entitled Rethinking the Kitchen: The Sustainable Kitchen Handbook.
Almost all of Quillisascut's cheese is marketed to restaurants, Misterly emphasized, which means chefs need to know that goats are seasonally influenced in their breeding and lactating. "Our cheese season is in spring ... right now it's cheese-eating season. 'Cheeseball season,' as we put it."
Most of the Farmer-Chef Connection panels and breakout sessions emphasized rethinking the prevailing paradigm of big industrial agriculture and ranching and large-scale distribution. The overarching theme was keeping Eastern Washington's food economy strong through supporting local and community orchards, farms, ranches and other food producing operations.
"As an educator and chef, I have an obligation to pass on the information [about the power of local and regional food production] to students," says Gene Fritz, culinary arts instructor with Washington State University. "I am a firm believer in embracing sustainability for Washington." WSU's dining service staff and students have been encouraged to work with regional foods, Fritz adds, so dinners on campus, from the dining halls to the president's office, include an array of ways to prepare and serve local products like lentils, chick peas and tofu.
The proof is in the pudding, of course, and the lunch menu for this first Spokane Farmer-Chef Connection was a banquet of foods produced locally and cooked by area chefs:
& lt;ul & & lt;li & Elithorp Farm potatoes and winter squash prepared as a soup by the Club at Black Rock; & lt;li & Range chickens from Lazy Lightning H Ranch and elk from Lonehawk Farm Gourmet Meats prepared by the Coeur d'Alene Resort; & lt;li & Charlie's Produce spaghetti squash and Fresh Abundance seasonal produce prepared by Hills' Restaurant; & lt;li & Lentz Spelt Farms emmer farro (a whole grain) and Three Gates Farm garlic prepared by SCC Culinary Arts students; & lt;li & Small Planet tofu prepared by WSU Dining Services; & lt;li & Red Barn Farm eggs, Olsen Farms potatoes and Quillisascut Farm cheese prepared by Lovitt Restaurant; & lt;li & Columbia Plateau Producers and Shepherd's Grain Eastern Washington flour prepared as baked goods, breads and scones by HearthBread BakeHouse, Frank Pigott and Scones To Go; & lt;li & Wine by Robert Karl Cellars and China Bend Winery. & lt;/ul &
It's not surprising that many chefs and restaurateurs embrace the concepts of social justice, water conservation and environmental stewardship, but taste and food costs play big into the success of a restaurant as well. In addition, time spent at farmers' markets is time away from the job, says chef David Blaine of Latah Bistro. But at least one local farmer delivers potatoes, for example, directly to Blaine's kitchen.
Such a partnership in "local, artisan and sustainable cuisine" has been a focus in Portland and Seattle and other cities nationally for years, so this evolution into the Spokane market jazzed up most of the ranchers, growers and chefs attending Monday's shindig.
Debra Sohm Lawson of Portland-based Ecotrust has put on similar events for the past five years in Portland. Ecotrust will now include Eastern Washington in its comprehensive guide to local and seasonal products, thereby linking chefs and restaurants with food producers.
Centralizing a form of distribution was one of the main topics covered by chefs and food producers. Jeff Herman of Spokane Farmers' Market and Cliffside Orchards proposed a way to link area restaurants and growers through a distribution co-op to allow for a more personal connection. That might also tie into the Spokane Farmers' Market.
Tamara Murphy of Brasa Restaurant notes that when she first worked in Seattle, she used to get local berry and mushroom growers and harvesters at her kitchen's backdoor. Her goal is to have all the food served in her restaurant come from local growers and producers; most of it already is. Menu changes occur regularly to accommodate and compensate for the seasonality and availability of local foods. For example, Murphy says she only serves fresh tomato salads in July, August and September, when tomatoes are fresh and in season in the region.
Local farms may not always deal in standardized quantities, but Murphy's mantra is to buy what the farmer (rancher, fisher) has available, even if it's not enough.
"It's all about building relationships," she says. "It's one farmer at a time, one ingredient at a time in some cases."
In the end, most chefs and food producers say that the food lasts longer, tastes better and inspires the chef to cook creatively.
"Seeing firsthand what goes into raising livestock or the backbreaking work picking baby greens," Murphy says, sets the mantra of "never nickel-and-dime the farmer" firmly in her heart.
Moreover, farmers and ranchers like Fleming, Brent Olsen, Lena Lentz-Hardt, Chad Henneman of Lazy Lightning H Ranch, and Carl Melina of Lone Hawk Farms concede that the restaurant business is competitive, risky, and a lot of hard work.
Blaine of Latah Bistro concluded that he's part of the entertainment industry, and adding value to the price tag for the diner when it costs more up front for organic and local fresh food isn't difficult when the "products make us look good."
The proof is in customer satisfaction. By knowing where each food product they use in every recipe comes from, chefs can facilitate the important relationship between customers and the food on their plates. Embracing the personal narratives of each and every farmer, rancher and food crafter, after all, is part of the politics of food.
The Farmer-Chef Connection was sponsored by Chefs Collaborative, Ecotrust, WSU-Spokane County Cooperative Extension, American Culinary Federation and the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Visit www.portlandcc.org, www.agr.wa.gov/marketing/smallfarm, www.wafarmersmarkets.com, www.ecotrust.org and & lt;a href="http://csnar.wsu.edu" & csnar.wsu.edu & lt;/a & .