Each winter, Kevin McCarthy, the chef at Lake Placid Lodge in New York, studies the seed catalog with local farmer Steve Tucker. Based on a wish list of ingredients drawn up by McCarthy, the two plot the next growing season — and the results make up a large part of the restaurant's menu.
From requesting crops to choosing animal feed, more and more chefs are teaming up with farmers to collaborate on what's being grown and raised — and how. It's a natural extension of the locavore movement, a push to encourage people to eat locally produced meats and produce. Chefs were early pioneers and for many, getting involved with farmers in a more hands-on way is a natural extension.
The partnerships have come as chefs focus more on developing healthy products that require buy-in from farmers, such as pesticide-free produce and hormone-free meat.
"I go to the farm seven or eight times a year," McCarthy says. "I know how he cares for it, what he does. I know he's not pouring bleach or boric acid on the plants to keep the bugs away. I trust him to produce a product that's clean and without chemicals."
Working with local farmers has also become a more affordable option. Chef John Besh, who owns several restaurants in New Orleans, has found that when he works with Louisiana farmers, he can request produce that he would typically have to order from other areas of the USA or outside the country.
"With the price of fuel, the local farmer is a more economical choice," Besh says. "We're not paying exorbitant shipping costs. Spending more on a smaller farm is cheaper than buying bulk produce that's been shipped across the country."
Part of the appeal also comes from how the partnership supports the local community. Besh, for example, connected the brewer who makes his beer with the farmers who raise his cattle. The cattle are grass-fed and then fattened with the spent barley from the brewer.
McCarthy, who works with the harsher climate of upstate New York, likes that the money he spends on produce goes back into his community, even if he can't have tomatoes in February. "We're driving down streets that are paved because the money stays in the community," he says.
The Lake Placid Lodge has also established an education program that takes local kids to nearby farms. "They get to see where carrots come from," he says. "It's not from the store."
There are limits to how far the collaboration goes. Besh will purchase seeds for his farmers and then buy the produce back, but he draws the line at digging in the dirt himself. "After a number of failed personal attempts at farming, I've left it to the farmer to do what he or she knows best," he says.
Ultimately, it all comes down to taste.
In Washington, D.C., Equinox chef Todd Grey works with a Virginia rancher to figure out the ratio of grass to grain that the cattle should eat to get rich beef with just the right amount of marbling.
"It's got a bright, rich acidity to the meat," Grey says. "How the animal is fed has a lot to do with how it tastes. I wish I could customize it all."