Sonoma farm to table
Rudy Mihal, chef at Odyssey in Windsor, empties a bag of fresh vegetables from the Santa Rosa farmers market for use in his menu.
New alliance promotes bond between chefs and farmers
Published: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.
Two years ago, while accidentally locked in a bathroom at a Paris hotel, Jil Hales of Healdsburg’s Barndiva got a cell phone call from a tomato farmer back home.
Alone with her thoughts, Hales hatched an innovative idea: a network that would help Sonoma County chefs and farmers work together and connect more easily.
“Rather than me doing it alone, I wanted to get people together,” Hales said. “We’ve all been circling this issue. . . . How do you make this work?”
Organizers hope it will be a win-win situation for everyone, with chefs procuring tastier ingredients, farmers expanding their markets, and the consumer enjoying superior flavor while supporting local farms.
“When Joe Farmer down the road has a few boxes of strawberries, and Jane Doe cooking for the restaurant needs a box of strawberries, this can help them get together,” said Lou Preston, who farms grapes, vegetables and fruits at his Dry Creek ranch.
What often keeps chefs and farmers apart is a common problem: lack of time. Currently, only a handful of chefs are able to take the time to source and pick up most of their produce locally.
Chef John Franchetti of Rosso in Santa Rosa said he’s looking forward to Fork & Shovel because it will streamline his shopping trips to local farms and help him look ahead.
“With lists from farmers of what is up and coming, chefs can think about the future,” Franchetti said. “That will help us plan.”
Although farmers markets work well for the general consumer, not every market accommodates the needs of restaurant buyers, who often require large volumes of produce. And while farmers are experts at growing food, the marketing side can be a bit tricky to master.
With the help of the Internet, Fork & Shovel has created a Web site (www.forkandshovel.com) where members can quickly communicate with one another.
“We ask the chefs to check the Web site before going anywhere else,” Hales said. “And we ask the farmers to update the Web site regularly, with their amounts.”
“Chefs are nocturnal creatures and are exhausted around the end of the night,” she said. “The farmer is an early-morning person. To get them together, you had to get people in different time zones to talk.”
The chefs are mainly concerned about quality control and delivery. Can they count on the farmers for a certain volume of product, and get it easily?
The farmers, on the other hand, are worried about being able to get the price they need to charge.
Still, organizers remain optimistic that these issues will be ironed out over time, especially if Fork & Shovel’s tentative plans for a central drop-off point come to fruition.
“Distribution is the only problem,” said Rudy Mihal, chef of Odyssey restaurant in Windsor. “If we have a drop-off point . . . you’ll be able to go there and look and see what’s there.”
Participating restaurants will post an emblem on their window, like the Zagat and Michelin stickers, showing that they support local farmers.
For the consumer, this will translate into “a richer dining experience” Hales said. “You put your money literally here, where your mouth is.”
As a side effect, Fork & Shovel hopes the greater community will learn how to feed itself economically, healthfully and locally — and serve as a model for other communities. It might take a village to accomplish.
“There’s a ‘rising tide’ concept that has to be there or it won’t work,” Hales said.
As the program expands, the hope is that small, local farmers will be able to grow more food.
“The demand will create the product,” said chef Bruce Riezenman of Park Avenue Catering. “These guys are going to look at it and say . . . ‘Now I have a market for growing more product.’ ”
While some small farmers are not quite ready to increase production, others are looking forward to being able to reach out to new markets.
“We’re interested in Fork & Shovel as a way to expand awareness and to help with the distribution,” Preston said. “We have enough produce that we have to do something with it.”
Preston views Fork & Shovel as part of the “new paradigm” of sustainable farming, where the small farmer rotates diverse crops and maintains close ties to the customer.
“It’s more personal and spontaneous and changes with the season,” he said. “It works so well on a personal level.”
Some local farmers, like Ron and Bibiana Love of Love Farms, have already made these kinds of connections. They grow a wide range of produce and sell it at their own outlet, Love Farms Market, in downtown Healdsburg. But they’re supporting Fork & Shovel as well.
“We sell to chefs all the time,” Bibiana said. “They ask me how ripe are the tomatoes, and what’s coming up in the next couple of weeks.”
Other local farmers, such as Tierra Vegetables of Windsor, are savvy about reaching retail consumers but have had less luck with chefs.
“Right now, I’ve got a whole bunch of summer squash that needs to go somewhere, and there’s nobody I can think of,” said Evie Truxaw of Tierra. “I know from chefs I’ve talked to that they want to buy from local people, but everybody’s busy.”
Meanwhile, chefs who are already buying from local farmers are looking forward to Fork & Shovel because it will allow them to connect with new sources.
“If this thing gets going, we’ll get other farms involved,” Mihal said. “One of my favorite farms is County Line Harvest in Petaluma, but they don’t deliver up here. . . . If we had a drop-off point, they’d do it.”
Fork & Shovel will be launched officially with a benefit dinner in October at Barndiva that will feature farmers and chefs, cooking together.
FORK & SHOVEL ROSTER:
Restaurants and caterers: Barndiva, Cyrus, Dry Creek Kitchen, Scopa, Zin, Mateo Granados catering, all of Healdsburg; Bistro des Copains of Occidental; Central Market of Petaluma; Mosaic of Forestville; Odyssey of Windsor; Rosso of Santa Rosa; Santi of Geyserville; Park Avenue Catering of Cotati.