Where Chefs and Farmers Come Together

chefmarket_stjohnsbread

The world of the professional kitchen is a far cry from cooking at home – in so many ways – but the most obvious is the scale on which restaurants work compared to the home cook. Chefs dedicated to offering dishes made from the best ingredients spend a lot of time tracking down the products – and producers – who can consistently provide them with a quality product.

For years, most restaurants have worked with restaurant supply companies or importers at the food terminal, and the idea of working directly with local farmers seemed painstaking and difficult. How could a chef know which local farmer could supply enough potatoes for their famous frites? Or which grass-fed beef was the best?

The idea of bringing chefs and local farmers together has gained momentum in the past few years as the local food movement has taken hold in the GTA. With more than 20 farmers markets for individuals spread out across the city, wouldn’t it be a great idea to set up a farmers’ market just for chefs? A place where farmers and chefs could meet, where wholesale orders of large quantities could be accommodated and where a chef could put in an order and it could be delivered to their kitchen door.

chefmarket_mushrooms_smallOrganized by Edmund Rek, a former chef himself and the co-owner of Evelyn’s Crackers, the chefs’ market at the Evergreen Brickworks is a space where chefs and farmers can meet and do business, and where industry folks can socialize, make contacts and compare products. Based on a seed of an idea from a Slow Food Toronto symposium, the Chef’s Market gained momentum under the guidance of Jamie Kennedy.

At the moment, the market is still small, with about 15 vendors and aspirations to double that by the end of the year. When I attended the market a few weeks ago, I was expecting something along the lines of a mini food terminal, but the scene was much more laid back, with local chefs and food shop owners sampling products and buying some items, but socializing seemed to be a higher priority.

chefmarket_lavender_small“Socializing is a big part of the market with buying ultimately the goal,” explains Rek. “At the market farmers can speak to a chef; in the restaurant it is too busy. It is the same for the chefs making relationships with farmers that don’t happen when a box is dropped off at the back door. For a few hours, everyone is committed to growing the local food movement through human connections.”

Still, whether it’s for the shopping or the socializing, the Brickworks location has made attendance difficult for chefs and restaurant staff who are car-free. I had to bum a ride with the good folks from Pantry to get there, and I’ve spoken to a number of Toronto chefs, many devotedly dedicated to the local food scene, who just can’t get there because it’s not TTC-accessible.

“There will be transportation from the subway to the Evergreen Brick Works by this time next year,” Rek assures me, “which will help people get down to the market from the city. Many of the farmers will still be driving several hours to the market and it is hard to convince them chefs can’t come down before then.”

A colourful array of lettuces.

A colourful array of lettuces.
A colourful array of lettuces.

And for chefs who don’t come to market with their own truck to haul away their goods, deliveries can be arranged through 100km Foods. “We realize that getting a chef out of the kitchen, the farmer off the farm is not easy,” says Rek. “So, we have delivery from market available for the chefs who purchase large amounts and may only need to be physically at the market once a month placing orders. Also, there are farmers who are using the market for dropping off orders that are picked up by the chefs. This lessens the time farmers spend driving around town making deliveries.”

Besides the actual market, Rek is doing plenty to make the weekly event attractive to local chefs. There is a chef/farmer pairing for lunch, which has recently grown to include breakfast. Rek also invites a guest each week to do a presentation on an issue relevant to local chefs and producers. Most recently, representatives from Ocean Wise were on hand to discuss sustainable fishing; the gals from Field Trip were guests one week and talked about their farm trip tours; and Rek even organized a discussion after the premiere of the film Food, Inc.

Preparing lunch.

Each week the market also high-lights a featured producer and featured beverage. The chefs and volunteers creating the lunch will use products from that producer in the lunch entrée, such as tomatoes and beef from Kerr Farms for a bolognese pasta. Rek and his team are also working on a “shop with a chef” program where small groups can tour the market with a chef, learning about how to choose and prepare foods.

While the market itself isn’t open to the public, its importance in terms of what we eat is not to be underestimated. As more chefs, caterers and retailers participate, the connections between chefs and farmers grows, and more opportunities to put local food on restaurant menus become available. It also allows people in an industry occasionally known for hard after-hours partying to socialize and network in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Chatting and socializing - dogs welcome.