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Farmers Weigh In: Which Chefs Really Source Local?

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which food industry people chime in on a major issue in food.

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[Photo: HausBar Farms/Facebook/Melissa Skorpil]

Mark Bittman's call to food activists in his controversial New York Times op-ed last week has the food world buzzing about buzzwords. From "organic" and "G.M.O" to "agro-ecological" and "slow," it's difficult for the average eater to decipher what really matters or how to find it. Austin is certainly no stranger to the entire sustainable food lexicon. This city, after all, is home to Whole Foods.

But Eater wants to know: which restaurants are putting their marketing money where their mouth is and actually buying local or organic or sustainable or…whatever?

Here now, Eater goes straight to the source and checks in with five local farmers and ranchers who collaborate heavily with Austin restaurants. Read on for their take on which restaurants have made a true commitment to serving locally grown food, from Qui to East Side Pies.

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Dorsey Barger

HausBar Farms

Who are a couple Austin chefs you respect the most for their sourcing?

The chefs at Qui are so phenomenal. I think he's a genius in every way. Apparently he's very good at attracting other genius too. Jorge Hernandez is brilliant. Everything he does is so inspired. Lou Perella is another one of his chefs who's so amazing…and some new chefs there, Rob and Zach.

Every one of them is so tuned into the importance of that little spinach leaf. They don't take anything for granted. They are blown away by the stuff that is coming right out of the ground, so it's really neat to work off one another – for them to get inspired by the stuff that comes from the farm. And for the farm to go, "Oh, wow. Let's really try to grow some interesting things for them."

And of course Jesse Griffiths from Dai Due. What he can do with local ingredients is just magic.

Can you talk more about some of your relationships with the restaurants who source from you regularly?

We've entered this exciting and wonderful relationship with Qui, who we really think is the most innovative restaurant in the city. We started about six months ago selling him just a few little things and caught their interest from there. We really intrigued them with some weird possibilities like edible flowers and flowering vegetables. The relationship has taken on this wonderful life of its own. They order from me probably four times a week, so they are my best customers.

I just adore the fact that they are so willing to experiment with things that nobody else is doing. For example, we're selling them celery flowers. No one has even heard of celery flowers much less wanted to put them on their menus. The relationship just keeps getting more awesome.

I love to grow weird things, like salad burnet. Stuff that no one has ever heard of that's just really delicious. And they are ready to go with it every time, so that's really exciting.

We've had a long and beautiful relationship with Dai Due butcher shop, and Jesse has been my hero forever. He and Tamara [his wife] are hugely responsible for the fact that I am here on an urban farm. I was just beginning to understand the importance of sourcing locally. Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma had just come out, and around that time they were opening Dai Due. I just freaked out about their commitment to local. I was like, "This is so unbelievably cool that it's actually possible to source pretty much anything locally."

Maybe you can't source everything on every menu at every restaurant for sure because there's a whole lot of stuff that's not anywhere near here. But Dai Due made the commitment to only serve anything that was available near us. I just went bonkers over that concept.

It made me want to start a farm to feed my own restaurant at the time [Eastside Café]. That didn't work out as well as I wanted it to, so I sold my restaurant to my business partner. Now it's really neat to be sourcing my produce to Jesse, since he was the inspiration for the farm in the first place. He's awesome.

What would you say to restaurants who can't source everything locally?

Kome was my first client ever as an urban farm, and I adore them. They don't source a ton locally, but what they do well is really let the stuff that they source locally shine. I first met Také [Asazu] as a customer at Musashino because he was a sushi chef there for years. I've known him forever, so he was the first person who wanted to come use our product.

They have a Farm Salad, and they take whatever we send and just lay it out on a plate. They'll get chard, collards, turnips or anything we have, and put the ingredients for an awesome salad dressing in separate little containers. You pour it all into one vessel and mix it up. It's the best salad dressing I've ever had – I don't even know how to describe how delicious it is. Then you just pick up with your fingers these greens in their purest state. It's just a raw piece of chard you dip it into the dressing, but it will blow your mind.

So they're not sourcing everything locally. It would be hard to get a lot of Japanese stuff locally, but the fact that they let what they do have speak for itself is really cool.

What are some of the ingredients and lesser-known vegetables coming out of your farm we should look for on menus this season?

We have tomatoes coming soon and about four different kinds of cucumbers, including Armenian, Marketmore and pickling cucumbers. We're planting both summer and winter squash, since both actually grow in the summer, including a straight neck yellow squash, a little zephyr squash and some tatume for their squash blossoms.

Then we'll have a little later on in the season okra and sweet potatoes. We harvest them less for the potato and more for the greens. I love sautéed sweet potato greens. Lamb's Quarters is pretty much a weed that's fantastic. Chefs in Austin aren't used to not having greens, like kale, during the hot months. They don't want to grow in the heat, but if you bring in things that aren't really traditionally found or eaten in our area, you can have a lot to play with. For example, you can eat okra greens!

All we have to do is let chefs get their hands on it, so they can see that they don't have to give up that great sautéed vegetable. They just have to find a different kind.

[Photo: Ashley Cheng/EATX]

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Paula Foore

Springdale Farm

What restaurants source from you regularly?

Café Josie, Driskill Grill, Eden East, Justine's, Peche, Lenoir, Wink, Swift's Attic, Epicerie, Josephine House, Salt & Time and Greenhouse Craft Food.

One thing we've learned is how hard it is for the chefs to go the step beyond the big food distributors and to buy local. Those that do deserve all the kudos we can give them.

Which chefs do you see at your market most often?

There are many chefs that buy at the farmer's markets, and, of course, we don't necessarily see those folks. We see the people that come here to our farm stand, and the ones that stop in regularly are listed on our website. There are other restaurants that we have relationships with as well, but they may shop a little more randomly. They may come to us one week and shop the farmers' markets on another week.

What is the relationship like between you as the farmer and chefs?

We love getting to know the chefs. They are always willing to try new things or to share cooking tips with farm stand customers. Last year, for a variety of reasons, we let some Roma beans get overly ripe. I knew that would make them tough, but I hated to loose the whole crop. I asked Brandon Fuller, the chef and owner of Cafe Josie, who happened to be shopping that day what I might do with them. He emailed me two links suggesting that I dry them and use them like shell beans. We did, and they turned out so good we were able to salvage the crop. We'll actually be growing them again this year for their newfound purpose. Teamwork!

Another restaurant contacted us last week to see if we would grow a crop just for them. Of course, we were delighted. It's just another part of the relationships that we enjoy cultivating. Oh, a pun!

What ingredients would you recommend people look for on menus in the next few weeks?

Things on the menus right now from Springdale will be fresh new potatoes, beets, asparagus, carrots, spring onions and fresh herbs. The first of the little sungold tomatoes are trickling in. We harvested our first Padron peppers and little gherkin cucumbers last week, as well. It won't be long until we see the warm weather crops coming in full force.

[Photo: Ashley Cheng/EATX]

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Pati Jacobs

Bastrop Cattle Company

Which restaurants are buying beef from you regularly?

Michael at East Side Pies, Jam at Thai Fresh, Dipak at Whip In and Eric at Wink have all been big weekly supporters of BCC for several years now. Bryan Butler at Salt & Time and Sonya Cote from Eden East and Hillside Farmacy are also great backers. Workhorse Bar on North Loop has had us on the menu - the Bastrop Burger - since the day they opened in 2012.

Texans certainly love their beef and BBQ. Have you noticed any local beef trends over the years? What are the most popular cuts requested by restaurants?

Cuts that have become more in demand the last few years have been beef short ribs, oxtail and marrow bones.

[Photo: Scott Van Osdol]

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Carol Ann Sayle

Boggy Creek Farm

Do you have a list of restaurants who source from you regularly?

Yes, I list them on the BCF website: Wink, Olivia, Lenoir, Bufalina, Jeffrey's, Josephine House, East Side Pies, Olamaie, Texas French Bread and Fine Home Dining. Other chefs come now and then, but I don't list them unless they are committed to our produce. We highly value the chefs who shop here. Typically, their restaurants are where we eat as we trust them as far as their overall food sources.

Who do you think is doing it best, or who do you see most often? You've been farming full-time since about 1991. Any good stories about specific chefs over the years?

Eric Polzer, chef de cuisine and forager of Wink restaurant, is the first chef to really "get" the connection between the soil and the plate. He has been coming to Boggy Creek Farm twice a week for about 17 years – first for Brio Vista at the Arboretum and currently for Wink. He is such a regular here that he has his own spot at the cashier counter, writes out his own invoice, and checks the walk in cooler to see if anything is lurking in there.

He is very sensitive to the home cook's fear that chefs will "take all the good stuff," and if one is near him, he will step back and let her get what she needs. The home cook customers love him. He also knows what we farmers go through as he volunteered for field work seven or eight years ago and learned firsthand how to deal with tomato horn worms (flick them off the plant and step on them).

What ingredients would you recommend people look for on menus in the next few weeks?

Spring onions, garlic, potatoes, greens and lettuces unless the weather turns ugly-hot, radishes, fennel, fava beans, beets, the first squash, the last strawberries and the first blackberries.

[Photo: Ashley Cheng/EATX]

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Erin Flynn

Green Gate Farms

Do you have a list of restaurants that source from you regularly?

Our community-based farm has relied upon CSA memberships and our farm stand sales since we started nine years ago. Now that we've more than doubled our production at our River Farm near Bastrop, we're eager to work with more restaurants.

Who are some chefs that you do work with, and what has that partnership been like?
Olive and June buys from us consistently each week, and it's a pleasure working with them. They really appreciate the quality of our produce and that we are just a few miles away from their restaurant.

What ingredients would you recommend people look for on menus in the next few weeks?

After the cold, erratic spring weather, summer veggies are coming on. We just enjoyed our first harvest of summer squashes, and also have basil blooming, potatoes in, tomatoes and beans just around the corner an mulberry trees heavy with fat berries. Now's the time to enjoy the last of the lettuces, mustards, kohlrabi and strawberries as they all head out with the rising temperatures.

Why do you think it's important for chefs and Austinites to support our local farming and ranching community?

I think Austinites would be shocked if they knew how few restaurants source organically and locally on a consistent basis. All the vegetable farmers I know are struggling to find customers who will pay a fair price. We're looking forward to working with more restaurants that want to grow with us.

[Photo: Green Gate Farms/Facebook]

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