Dear Ms. Foster,
I am one of those restaurant owners you were talking about in the Low Summer 2012 issue. “Tough Customers” you called us, the picky buyers from tony eateries who may or may not buy your produce, who may or may not put your name on the menu. There are good reasons we go out of our way to acknowledge farmers and baymen, beekeepers and bakers—we want to share the credit for the deliciousness of the food. We’d like our guests to understand, even passingly, the connection between the terroir and what sits on their plates. Seems like a win/win/win. For the farmer, the diner and us. It may be a foody fantasy, but we believe that knowing where your food was born and raised can deepen your appreciation and even enhance the tastes.
As one guest recently said, “The best part of this meal is that I can stuff myself with great food and still think I am helping the local economy and saving the planet, too.”
You referred to a tractor-trailer of beans being rejected by a restaurant because of a single bad bean. Sounds like the start of a Grimms’ fairy tale. I thought the saying was about one rotten apple, not one flageolet, and it was as much a metaphor as reality (even though unchecked mold spores can indeed ruin the bunch). At Southfork Kitchen, we generally find imperfect fruits and vegetables perfectly acceptable—to pickle, preserve, smash, mash, dice, puree, and juice.
I do recall rejecting some garlic. A local farmer brought us a batch of garlic that was already discolored and shrunken. He was asking top dollar. We graciously declined. To which the farmer said, “If you don’t buy my garlic, you have no right to call yourself local or organic.” So we took to growing our own garlic in the garden surrounding the restaurant, along with a few other items for which we have a daily need and/or no luck finding in the area, like lemon balm and anise hyssop.
Farmers, like beans, come in all shapes and sizes and degrees of freshness. At least this farmer was standing in our kitchen. As you know, many small farms do not deliver, do not bill, do not accept credit cards, do not take orders over the Internet, do not have the luxury of promising the same size or weight or count every week. We have a fax machine at the restaurant for two reasons: farmers and tradespeople. No one else uses those quaint machines from the last, slow-moving century.
Most often, perhaps counterintuitively, local farmers charge more money for all these charming inconveniences. We don’t mind the prices. We live in a high-rent district. People have the right to earn whatever they can. And farming is hard work, unpredictable, dependent on health, the economy, immigration laws, tax codes, on most things under the sun, including the sun. As our international kitchen staff has often said, the produce on the East End is the best they have ever worked with, and the most expensive. Seems like a marriage made in Hamptons heaven.
Let us not forget that restaurants have caused farmers more than petty inconveniences. Some tough customers don’t pay their bills, some don’t show up regularly and stick the farmer with wilting produce, some fill their menus with untruths. Local corn in May? And then some kitchens mix a handful of Balsam Farms arugula with a mess of King Kullen arugula and pawn it off as local. Others buy eggs from a large truck and call them “farm eggs.” One restaurant was pushing Mecox Bay Dairy sheep’s milk cheese. Only Mecox Bay has no sheep.
Let us also not forget the lovely paradox of being attracted to smallish farms for the same reasons one is put off. That the farm is not automated, not corporate, not accommodating, not single cropped, not corner cutting—that’s how the chickens and the squash and the mushrooms get so scrumptious. Personalized farming means personalized service and that helps us to know the family at the farm, and their methods, and valuable data about cultivating poultry and plants and people.
We used to buy freshly killed chickens from a local farmer. The birds were invariably luscious and always variable in size and quantity. We paid cash, retail, on the spot, which was twice as much as lesser chickens that would be delivered to our doorstep, uniform in weight, number and size. No wonder most restaurants opt for the ease and practicality of large distributors. Let’s be honest—small farms are a pain in the neck, and not just for the poor chickens. Chefs tend to be compulsive about uniformity; most complain when birds of a feather weigh in, consecutively, at two and three and four pounds. And accountants complain about paying cash at a farm stand each week, leaving them with little pieces of paper flying around the office instead of verifiable records.
Still, when you are convinced that the quality of the produce is worth the price and the hassle, you go the extra mile—on jammed roads on sweltering days.
In the end, buying from local farmers has been like dating the prettiest girl in freshman English. She happens to live far off campus, makes you wear a clean shirt and come into the house to meet her parents, and tends to be skittish on the first date or three. She’s very high maintenance, but you know she’ll be worth it in the end.
The writer is owner of Southfork Kitchen in Bridgehampton.
July 12, 2012