SJ Hot Chefs just finished its annual Farm to Fork Week, and once again, it was a huge success for many of the restaurants that I've talked to. It brings out the regular diners looking for a great meal at a discount and it entices new guests to give a local restaurant a try.
One of the jobs I have as president of the organization is to do a press release and interviews about the event, which usually start with the same question.
"How did Farm to Fork get its start?"
I always have the same answer, which is the truth: this is just a continuation of what independent restaurants have always done. We're just advertising it now.
When I got my start in independent restaurants, it was at a small restaurant in historic New Castle, Delaware, called the David Finney Inn. I was hired to do prep and clean up after the chef.
I arrived about a half an hour early on my first day—in restaurants, that's on time or late depending on the chef—and asked where to get started. I was told to clear and clean the two back prep tables, and that our vegetable delivery would arrive soon.
Just as I had finished cleaning the tables, the back door was slammed open by a bear of a man and his two helpers, who brought in about 12 large bushels of vegetables that I was told to quickly empty and wash. The chef later informed me that if we didn't give back the large wooden baskets before the man left he would charge us for them.
This was a regular event, twice a week, from late May to mid-October. The chef was a big proponent of using the freshest ingredients possible, and that bear was a farmer he had met one day when he got lost driving around Bear, Delaware.
That was 1985: more the 25 years before anyone ever mentioned the farm-to-table movement in a newspaper or magazine. Today, if you open a restaurant and don't buy directly from a farm, a critic somewhere will be looking down his or her nose and immediately check your restaurant off as just another restaurant, period.
Several years later, I was working for a large corporation as a trainer. I was on location in Florida, and in the back door walked a person asking if we would like to buy some produce. Not knowing the ways of big business, I said, "Yes, that would be great," and headed out to his truck to see what he had.
He had it all, everything from avacados, to oranges, to peppers and squash. I told him what I wanted and got a price and headed back in to the boss to get payment. At that point I got my education.
"Are you nuts?" is what was screamed at me. It would take 4-6 weeks to get a check cut and only after the farm was inspected by "experts" and the farm's pricing was approved by the bean counters. Well I didn't get my fresh produce, and I didn't last long in big business.
Just because the week is over doesn't mean local chefs aren't still going to the farms or Farmers Markets. I know almost every Saturday you can find Mark Smith pressing the flesh and buying his goods at the Collingswood Farmers Market. John Pilarz from Anthony's will be hosting a dinner at Duffield's in Sewell.
And I have to plug myself while I'm at it: August 10 and 11, I'll be having my annual tomato dinner with a minimum of 12 different heirloom tomatoes; August 18, I'll be co-hosting our fourth annual Feast in the Fields, with Kim Batten of the 1895 Organic Farm in Lumberton. If you enjoy dining out but are looking for something different, this is the dinner for you. I set up a formal dining table in the farm field and serve an hor d'oevre an hour, and then a four-course meal, utilizing as much of her produce as humanly possible.
Chef Fred Recommends
I didn't get out much this past week, just a little too busy. But I did make it to one of my favorites: La Esperanza in Gibbsboro.
Without a doubt the best authentic Mexican around. Just sit at the bar and order a fresh Margarita and a plate of carnitas tacos.
Fred Kellermann is the owner and chef de cuisine at Elements Cafe in Haddon Heights. He is also the president of SJ Hot Chefs, and urges you to support your local restaurant with your dining-out dollars.