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Make a connection with chefs, caterers

publication date: Apr 30, 2009
 | 
author/source: Zachary Lyons

By Zachary D. Lyons

    Say you raise cattle on the finest, healthiest pasture, never once showing them a feedlot or a grain of corn. As a farmer, you are an artisan, producing some of the best beef available – beef that tastes great and may even lower your cholesterol. The challenge is finding a market for it.
Meanwhile, a chef in a city nearby is wishing he could have beef like yours. He, too, is an artisan, but the brilliant culinary creations he concocts are only as good as his ingredients. The local distributor is convenient, offering one-stop shopping and streamlined invoicing, but it is difficult for the chef to learn from whom those ingredients came, and how they were raised. The chef feels disconnected from his ingredients in a profession where the best chefs must be inextricably linked to them. This chef needs to reconnect with the farmer.

Making the connection
     “You need to get the chefs and farmers together in one place,” said Jack Kaestner, Executive Chef of the Oconomowoc Lake Club, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. “You need to sit them together around a dinner table and let them get to know each other.” To that end, Kaestner organized his first “Farmer-Chef Connection” in January 2007, as one of the monthly American Culinary Federation (ACF) meetings in Southeast Wisconsin, an organization whose meetings tend to focus on more mundane restaurant business. “Usually these meetings feature some large purveyor pimping their products. The host restaurant hits their suppliers up for freebies.”
Kaestner invited 14 farmers to join the 60 chefs and culinary students in attendance. When the chefs arrived at 5:30 p.m., they were greeted with a “graze” of wonderful tastes prepared from Wisconsin farm products presented by the farmers. Then at 7 p.m., everyone settled down for a gourmet meal made from ingredients produced by these same farmers. But Kaestner had one more surprise for his colleagues.  At every ten-top table, he seated eight chefs with two farmers.
“ACF members said it was the best meeting they had ever attended,” Kaestner said. “Chefs enjoyed meeting the farmers, students felt like they learned something for a change, and farmers appreciated sitting down to hang out with chefs.”
John Pavelski is one of the farmers. “I made contacts with three chefs as a result of the meeting,” he said. “I like dealing with chefs who are artisans, while eating great food that is good for you, regardless of the price.”

An epiphany
    The Farmer-Chef Connection concept germinated in Portland, Oregon, in late 2000. “JJ Haapala of Heron’s Nest Farm in Junction City, Oregon, gave a presentation to the Portland Chapter of Chefs Collaborative,” said the Portland Chapter’s Debra Sohm-Lawson, the original developer of the program. “He mentioned that the farmers he worked with wanted to sell to restaurants, but did not know how. I asked myself, ‘How could we facilitate and strengthen links between farmers and chefs?’ The obvious answer was, let’s plan a conference.” Thus the first Farmer-Chef Connection was held in Portland in 2001, and one has been held there every year since, with Farmer-Chef Connections now occurring up and down the West Coast, and as far east as Wisconsin.
Seattle’s fourth annual Farmer-Chef Connection this past February saw attendance jump dramatically over 2008. “The growth in participation parallels the growth we are seeing in interest in local food,” said Meggen Chadsey, coordinator of the Seattle event for Seattle Chefs Collaborative. “Attendance by buyers was way up this year, and we heard from many new quarters of the food service industry wanting to learn more about buying local.” This included a ski resort, a pizza chain and a few grocery chains. In 2006, Seattle’s inaugural event drew about 150 attendees; 200 in 2007; 250 in 2008; and 350 in 2009, said Chadsey. In 2008, attendees were split equally among buyers (chefs and such), sellers (producers) and others (government, nonprofits, media, activists, and so on), while in 2009, about 50% were buyers, 45% sellers, and the remaining 5% or so were others.

So many farms
    “I can make many phone calls and visit many farmers markets to meet farmers, but that takes a tremendous amount of time,” said Charlie Durham, Executive Chef at Seattle’s Sand Point Grill. “This event had tons of farmers, so I could set up relationships easily. One woman had whole lambs, but did not have a place to sell them. She is in the middle of nowhere in the Okanogan [of North Central Washington], so she couldn’t otherwise get to meet chefs here in Seattle.”
Durham had one of those classic Farmer-Chef Connection experiences when he got talking with Chef Wayne Johnson of Seattle’s Andaluca restaurant and DeAnne Clune of Williamson Farms, in George, Washington. Both Durham and Johnson have been buying Williamson’s Wagyu beef from Clune. Johnson uses mostly prime cuts of beef at Andacula, such as the tenderloin, ribeye, flank, etc., and Durham found he was using way more ground beef than prime cuts. As it turns out, because Clune needed to sell whole beef, Johnson was ending up with way more ground beef than he could use, and Durham with too much tenderloin. Once the three were all together at the Seattle Farmer-Chef Connection in 2007, the solution seemed simple. Durham and Johnson would go in together on a whole beef from Clune, with Durham taking the ground, and Johnson taking the prime cuts.
At the Portland Farmer-Chef Connection the following month, Andy Westlund from Harmony J.A.C.K. had the same experience with Vitaly Paley, chef-owner of Paley’s Place Bistro & Bar and a chef from a local corporate office building’s cafeteria, and now, they too are splitting Westlund’s whole beef.
“I go to get educated on the challenges farmers face, and to learn how I can adapt to their needs,” said Paley.  “Farmers also learn what we chefs need.  It’s a two-way street.”  The beef splitting plan would seem a dramatic example of the benefits of this education.

Come here often?
    The event has evolved over the years to include a “speed dating” type of networking exercise very popular among farmers and chefs. It creates a format in which farmers and chefs are paired with each other briefly to learn about what each other has to offer, about each other’s unique needs, and hopefully to establish business relationships.
“The speed dating was great,” said Will O’Donnell of Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend, Washington, who attended in Seattle. “I hooked up with City Caterers and Bon Appetit, and things got going. We had completely overlooked caterers as a market for our cheese, and our distributor did not service them. The caterers we met at Farmer-Chef gave us the names of their distributors, and in the two months after the meeting, we established relationships with those distributors.” In short order sales to those distributors accounted for 10-15 percent of their total sales, said O’Donnell.
Besides the “speed dating” networking session, the Seattle Farmer-Chef Connection includes two other great networking opportunities: a lunch made by attending chefs entirely from ingredients produced by attending farmers known as “Seattle’s best lunch of the year,” as well as a Tasting Reception at the end of the day, at which many food and beverage producers, from wineries and breweries to shellfish farms, cheese, sausage and tofu makers and even a local organic, fair trade chocolate producer sampled their fare to Connection attendees.
The event is not all networking, though. Educational sessions throughout the day this year included workshops on distribution, product certification labels, branding and marketing “local” and even developing USDA inspected mobile meat slaughtering units. And the keynote featured a fascinating discussion – a debate in many respects – between one of Seattle’s most famous chefs, Tom Douglas, and one of Western Washington’s most respected farmers, Luke Woodward of Oxbow Farm, talking about what chefs feel they need from farmers, and what farmers feel they need from chefs.
“I like that the Farmer-Chef Connection put me easily in touch with potential customers,” said Andy Westlund. “To hear your competitors, customers and peers is very educational. After all, you do not know what you do not know. I learned a lot.” Westlund was fascinated, for example, to learn the views chefs had about frozen versus fresh beef. “Some chefs had real disdain for frozen,” he said.  “But others could appreciate the difference between our beef, which might be a 100 on a scale of 1-100 when it is fresh, but might drop to an 89 when frozen, as compared to fresh conventional beef, which might rate a 50.”

Join the party, for fun and profit
     Portland-based Ecotrust has played a prominent role in the developing of the Farmer-Chef Connection concept. It has prepared a guide for would-be Farmer-Chef Connection organizers called Building Local Food Networks:  A Toolkit for Organizers.  Given the dramatic success stories coming out of these events, the toolkit is a good starting point for those who wish to organize a similar event. Go to www.ecotrust.org, and click on “Food & Farms” in the “Programs” pull down menu for more information.  You can find more information on Farmer-Chef Connections at www.farmerchefconnection.org, seattle.chefscollaborative.org or portlandcc.org.


Zachary D. Lyons is a freelance food and agriculture writer based in Seattle.  He served as Executive Director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association from 1999-2005, and he served on the board of the National Association of Farmers Market Nutrition Programs.  He speaks about direct marketing and local food economies at conferences, workshops and market meetings and provides market consulting.  For more information, go to www.zacharylyons.com.


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