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Why chefs matter to farmers

It’s Tuesday at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and sales have been slow, but Poli Yerena of Yerena Farms is content with his business for the day. He stands amid waist-high stacks of organic berries that are all sold and accounted for, purchased by local chefs. “At least every week I have a new chef coming to buy strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, so I am happy,” he says. “Over the last eight years, we’ve been supplying to chefs. We know each other and there’s a good relationship.”

Chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luiz Aduriz recently created a stir when they intimated that chefs need not “provide a livelihood for farmers near their restaurants,” but at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, many chefs are proud participants in their local food economy. You’ll see them pushing large, gray carts stacked high with crates of asparagus, boxes of greens, and flats of stone fruit. Every Saturday morning, the market is a freeway of chef carts, with 40 to 50 chefs showing up per hour, sometimes more.

“The one area where sales in the market seem to have remained strong and even increased during the economic downtown is in the direct-to-chef business,” says Lulu Meyer, CUESA’s associate director of operations. “Without their business, many of our farmers would have suffered dearly in the last few years.” Since 2003, she has managed CUESA’s chef program, which provides conveniences such as carts and special parking for restaurant chefs, caterers, food artisans, and personal chefs. She also does outreach to local restaurants to bring new chefs to the market.

At least 130 of these businesses regularly shop at the Ferry Plaza. Food artisans in the market, such as June Taylor Company, Happy Girl Kitchen Co., and Saint Benoît Creamery, also do much of their sourcing from their fellow vendors and other local farms.

Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce notes that chefs have a stabilizing effect on his sales, particularly at weekday farmers markets. “If it weren’t for the chefs, then it almost would not be worth it for us to come out on Thursdays, especially on the days we know the weather is going to be bad,” he says. Some farmers report that upwards of 70 percent of their business comes from chefs at times, which can keep them afloat during the slower winter months.

In addition to large and consistent purchases, chefs can also offer a marketing boost for farmers they source from. Getting their name listed on a chef’s menu can put a farm on the radar of diners. “Chefs are sort of like ambassadors for the farmers they purchase from,” Meyer observes.

Schirmer agrees. “In terms of media, restaurants are make-it-or-break-it. They’re the trendsetters. Their food is not necessarily what people are going to make at home, but it’s what people are looking at.”

For Bill Crepps at Everything Under the Sun, a chef’s seal of approval helps him keep his standards high and affirm the hard work he does on his farm. “Chefs know quality,” he says. “If they like your stuff, it lets you know that your quality is good and competitive.” He appreciates the feedback he gets from chefs about his products, which often includes ideas for new varieties to grow or preparations to share with his customers.  “I choose something because I think it will be interesting to grow, and chefs come along and they teach me what to do with it.”

The benefits of farmer-chef relationships extend both ways. Many farmers will grow special products for chefs they work with, or will give them a heads-up when their favorite variety of a particular fruit or vegetable is coming into season. While many farms deliver directly to restaurants, shopping at the farmers market creates a space where chefs can form face-to-face connections with growers and enjoy the community of other cooks and food lovers.

The market also allows chefs to source products from local farms that don’t deliver, and it gives them the opportunity to see and taste what’s new and fresh. “As a business person, the number one reason I’m here is to find amazing products,” says Melissa Perello at Frances. “You’re hands-on with purveyors. You know what you’re getting and can choose.”

A regular Saturday and Tuesday shopper, Annie Somerville (pictured above), executive chef at Greens Restaurant, started supporting the market in its early days on Green Street. “For me, this is my refresher course,” she says. “Every time I step into the market, I know exactly what produce we should be cooking with. And for me, it’s important to be connected with the farmers, to know what they’re growing and what they’re going through.”

For Greg Dunmore at Nojo, sourcing from farms fits into his overall menu-planning aesthetic and philosophy. “As chefs, we can make a bit of a statement,” he says. “I designed this restaurant to be based around a farmers market. When you come to Nojo, you’re eating what’s available right now, here in the Bay Area.”

At CUESA, we believe that eaters and chefs both play vital roles in creating a sustainable local food system. You can support local farmers at the market three times a week, or by dining at restaurants that use their produce. Talk to chefs about their sourcing, or see our recently updated and ever-growing list of Chefs Who Shop with Us for ideas.

Annie Somerville photo by Gary Yost.

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