Farmers’ markets are an invaluable resource for chefs and restaurants when it comes to sourcing local, high-quality ingredients, but the benefits can extend far beyond just the food.
At the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market in San Francisco, operated by sustainable food nonprofit CUESA, chefs are the best customers. As a result, CUESA is constantly finding ways to make it easier for them to get the products they need, build strong relationships, and engage with their communities.
Lulu Meyer heads up market operations for CUESA and also manages the Market to Chefs program, designed to provide chefs tools and resources for shopping the market. “We try to make it as easy as possible for them to connect with the farmers and source their ingredients,” she says.
We asked Lulu, along with Chef Laurence Jossel of Nopa restaurant — who’s been shopping at the Ferry Building three days a week for the past decade — what both sides are doing to make the farmers’ market as rewarding as possible for its restaurant industry community. Here are five ways chefs can get involved for a more fulfilling partnership.
Build relationships with farmers.
Chefs keep coming back to the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market because of the caliber of the people and the ingredients they find there. Lulu is selective about which farms are featured, and many of the vendors grow specialty produce, which means a more diverse selection for chefs. The farmers always bring their A-game, because they know chefs are shopping and looking for the best of the best.
When a farmer and chef develop a relationship, sometimes the farmer will grow ingredients just for the chef or pick them at a certain time, the way he or she prefers. Lulu has also seen chefs ask farmers to grow ingredients they discovered while traveling. Laurence agrees: It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
“Develop a relationship with the person who’s growing your food,” Laurence advises. “They’re going to do different things with you.”
By shopping from the same farms regularly and paying them promptly, he’s fostered ongoing relationships that benefit both the restaurant and the farm. He says he doesn’t seek out deals from the market, because farmers should be paid fairly. He loves it when he can buy in bulk for the restaurant, getting great ingredients and supporting the community at the same time. “It’s worth coming to the market for the farmers.”
Take advantage of services like parking and shopping carts.
A huge component of the Market to Chefs program is parking permits. Parking around the Ferry Building and Embarcadero is incredibly limited, so CUESA provides permits that allow chefs to park right outside while they shop.
Additionally, CUESA provides carts for chefs to wheel around the market, fill up with ingredients, and take back to the car, and volunteers are on hand to help load cars. This year, Lulu says they have around 400 permits; 200 to 250 are for restaurants, and the others are for caterers, small artisanal food businesses, private chefs, and the like.
“It’s never enough,” Lulu says of the number of carts on hand. “On a Saturday between 7:30 and noon, we can have up to 30 chefs shopping at any given time.”
“Those carts are a boon,” Laurence adds. “The parking people are incredible. They’re organized, they take care of business — it makes it much less of a hassle.”
Spend time with peers in the community.
Thirty chefs all in the same place? For always-busy restaurant professionals, that’s noteworthy. Another big reason chefs love coming to the market is that it gives them a rare chance to talk to other chefs.
“It’s a really positive community vibe that’s happening here when they’re at the market,” says Lulu. “They don’t necessarily get to have that within their own kitchens and their own restaurants, they’re so insular. Being able to be out in the community talking to each other is really rewarding.”
On Saturdays especially, she says chefs tend to linger, hanging out in groups and checking out each others’ carts. They share ideas and tips for working with specific ingredients. Sometimes, they even sit down for coffee and breakfast.
They also share, Laurence says, which is something he’s really proud of. They look into each other’s carts, and they are always willing to tell someone else where they found an ingredient or what they want to do with it.
“We’re reconnecting our very unique community in a perfect setting. You’re not talking about the silly stuff, you’re talking about the reality. ‘I need a cook!’ ‘What’s going on with your lawyer?’ You discuss business, but primarily you’re discussing the important stuff, which is: how do we succeed as a group?”
Participate in classes and events.
In addition to the regular farmers’ market, CUESA hosts events that give chefs the opportunity to work with their peers. They recently held the Sunday Supper, an annual farm-to-city feast and fundraising gala for which 40 top chefs create a meal celebrating California’s bounty. Chefs make their own dishes, but they also help each other out with cooking and plating, which makes the experience feel even more communal.
Additionally, local chefs participate in cooking demos every Saturday at the market, and sometimes CUESA hosts hands-on classes. Other events include panel discussions and farm tours.
“Our events are a really awesome way for the chefs to come down and give back to the community,” says Lulu. “It’s doubly fun for them because they get to work with their peers that they don’t normally work in the restaurant with day to day, but they see sometimes at the market.”
CUESA’s Sunday Supper event went even further in celebrating chefs: they auctioned off a private dinner party prepared by Laurence in the winner’s home.
Engage the restaurant staff with producers.
Laurence often brings his sous chefs to the farmers’ market with him, but there are still plenty of staff members back at the restaurant, working, who don’t get to participate. To give them exposure to the people growing their food, he started a program called Complete the Circle: every couple of months he invites a farmer, winemaker, rancher, cheesemaker or other artisan producer into the restaurant for lunch and prepares their own product for them to enjoy.
The producers speak to the staff about their products, the cooks interpret the products through the meal, and a new kind of connection is forged. Plus, says Laurence, “Somebody in the kitchen will not waste a single bit of that product when they understand who grew it and what that means to them.”
He also takes his staff on farm trips, and he offers discounts to people who work on farms, as well as to others in the industry. His team started the blog Nopalize, which shares farmers’ stories and celebrates their work. Every day during lineup, the staff tastes every dish on the menu while Laurence talks through each ingredient, so everyone is prepared to discuss it and answer questions from guests.
“The heroes in our business are not the chefs, they are the farmers — they take the big risks. My philosophy is bring in the best possible stuff and get out of the way.“