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Cream of the Crop: Farmers and Foodservice Working Together

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CANADA IS A PREDOMINANTLY URBAN COUNTRY, BUT FOOD IS GOING BACK TO THE FARM

More than ever before, diners are asking for local food, organic food, and farm-to-table restaurants, and they want to know where their food is sourced. For many chefs, working closely with farmers helps to fulfill those requests; it also offers access to great products and a relationship with the people who provide them.  Here are a few ways Canadian farmers are working with chefs and other foodservice industry people, with ideas on how to make those relationships successful for everyone.

Event dinners

One of the most exciting ways farmers and chefs team up is at special event dinners. Sometimes these happen on a farm, and sometimes the farm comes to the city. But wherever they happen, they’re a great experience for guests, who enjoy meals while learning more about the people who produce their food.

The sixth annual Alberta Open Farm Day event was held in August, engaging over 100 farms at 16 culinary events. This “province-wide open house” let guests hear stories about farms and farmers while enjoying local food. Chef Eric Hanson of Prairie Noodle Shop said his involvement in the Grand Taste Tour event was an easy sell. “A long table looking out to the lake, mountains, sunset—it took me three seconds to say yes!” He added, “We have a short summer. Any time I have the chance to cook outside, I take it.”

Farmer Becky Doherty hosted the Grand Taste Tour event at beautiful Stonepost Farms, where they grow and produce free range eggs, free range chickens and turkeys, naturally grown and seasonal produce, natural unpasteurized honey, humanely raised grass-fed beef and humanely raised grass-fed pork. She enjoyed working with a chef who was open to suggestions. “We have a booth at the local farmers’ market, and it’s just a few blocks from Prairie Noodle Shop. Chef Eric often stopped by to talk about the event, and about our produce. His flexibility and creativity about what was on the menu made it a great experience.”

Chef Hanson said he decided what to make when he arrived at the farm the day of the event. “I’m inspired by whatever ingredients are in their prime,” he says. “I make the food right there, and customers are eating it five minutes later. That’s the best food, and the most exciting way to serve it.”

And his open-mindedness made the event a success for both sides. Hanson asked the farmers, “Is any of your produce shining right now? Is there anything you have an excess of?” Doherty said, “We had lots of chicken drumsticks, and Hanson was able to incorporate those in his meal. Working with such an open-minded chef made it a true partnership.”

I’m inspired by whatever ingredients are in their prime. I make the food right there, and customers are eating it five minutes later.

Selling to restaurants

One of the most popular ways for farmers and chefs to work together happens when restaurants buy directly from the farmer.

I asked Rob Tait of Dutton, Ontario’s Celtic Ridge Farms how he and his wife Maryjo got involved with the restaurant business. “We started working with a small local restaurant, Tasty Sweets Café and Bakery, in West Lorne. We supplied them with beef for their sandwiches, soups and chili.”

As their business expanded, they wanted to be able to count on regular shipments to ensure a guaranteed monthly income. They were contacted by Chef Danny McCallum of Toronto’s prestigious Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse.

“We were floored to be considered for their menu,” Tait says. “We spoke with Danny and immediately had an amazing connection.” They took some samples to Toronto, and the relationship was established. They now supply McCallum with tenderloin, strips and rib eyes.

As a result, they needed to find a home for the rest of the animal. “We were able to do this with a local restaurant, Tall Tales Café in Wallacetown. They go through a lot of hamburgers, and that was exactly what we needed to make the deal come full circle for us!”

Their relationships with the three restaurants form the basis of their business. They also supply meat to a butcher/distributor (The Packing House) on a monthly basis, which in turn distributes the meat to other Toronto restaurants.

Tait said the key to a great relationship between farmers and chefs is understanding and patience, and he has excellent relationships with his chef customers. “Beef farming is different from being a baker,” he says. “A muffin or a cake can be made quickly and easily. If they don’t turn out well, you can make another batch. In beef farming, the beef on your plate is a process of over three years, from conception and pregnancy, through raising the calf, backgrounding it, and finishing it. We have a limited number of animals, and we take great pride in raising the very best beef.”

School cafeterias

Perhaps one of the best ways to educate consumers about local food is to connect the next generation with it.

In 2015, Lester’s Farm Market in St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, was approached by St. Bonaventure’s College, where students were looking for healthy choices in their cafeteria lunches. That conversation led to the creation of Newfoundland and Labrador’s first farm-to-school salad bar.

Susan Lester and the team at Lester’s Farm Market work with Food First NL, Chartwells Food Service, and Farm to Cafeteria Canada (F2CC). “We all went into the venture knowing it was going to be a learning curve,” Susan says. “We talked about the best way to incorporate our fresh veggies, while keeping in mind that Chartwells already had a well-established way of doing things.”

I asked what advice she had for chefs and foodservice organizations wanting to work with farmers on a project like this. She stressed the importance of flexibility. “Crops are sometimes unpredictable, and sometimes when you’re looking for a crop it may not be available.” And the issue of cost came up. “Local food may not always be the economical choice. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s a lot easier to get imported food at a lower cost than local food.”

But the positives far outweigh the negatives. “It’s great to see schools supporting local farms. They’re not only supporting a local business, but they’re also passing along the importance of eating local and supporting local to students and families.” And Susan said the partnership goes beyond the food they provide. “We’ve had students to our farm for field trips, and I’ve gone to the school to speak to junior-high students about farming as a career.”

It’s great to see schools supporting local farms. They’re not only supporting a local business, but they’re also passing along the importance of eating local and supporting local to students and families.

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