Seasoned restaurateurs across the country are looking to local farmers markets for inspiration.
As it starts to cool down, guests expect hearty fall specials to start peppering menus. These chefs aren’t stopping at adding just one seasonal dish, they are planning whole menus based on what produce is looking good that morning.
This isn’t an individual attempt. Chefs are building relationships with local farmers to not only provide the freshest possible produce but to help farmers plan out what they need to be planted for next year. This symbiotic relationship adds to the depth of community already in place by restaurants.
Matt Levine, owner of IndieFork, a hospitality and operations company that own a multitude of popular restaurants in New York City, uses their seasonal menu at Chalk Point Kitchen, a 60-table market-to-kitchen restaurant, as a way to help local farms and build a sense of community.
“The driving force behind locally sourcing is the ethos of what we stand for at Chalk Point Kitchen,” Levine says, “supporting entrepreneurs and farmers, farm fresh ingredients, economically boosting your community, while adhering low carbon footprints, and transmissions.”
A local farmers market’s produce can vary both in quality and amount, so chefs need to be strategic in their selection and planning.
Günter Seeger, chef/owner of Günter Seeger New York, a 12-table Michelin-star restaurant with a daily menu focused on seasonal tastes, walks around the farmers market first thing in the morning. He takes the time to handpick the best-looking ingredients to decide what he’s going to put on the menu that day. This may not be the solution for larger restaurants, but smaller spots looking to source locally grown vegetables can benefit from an early morning stroll.
Seeger says hard work and dedication are all that is needed to make a seasonal menu work, and that the rewards make it all worth it.
“The main benefit, of course, is the ability to enjoy the season’s freshest and sometimes most unique ingredients,” Seeger explains. “My fisherman from Blue Moon Fish calls me from his boat three times a week when he has a catch. It may not always be the same item, but that is the most significant benefit of having a menu that changes daily.”
While Seeger’s menu changes day-to-day based on availability, he does keep a few signature dishes on the menu. But that isn’t the main draw for his guests: “We have regular guests who dine several times a week because they are stimulated by the change. It keeps guests coming back.”
Advice for Beginners
Chef Anthony Bucco of Restaurant Latour, a four-star restaurant at the Crystal Springs Resort in New Jersey, empathizes with the difficulty of having a seasonal menu. “It’s hard to be true to the season and have a signature dish,” he says. “So, my tip would be, make seasonality your signature, stay true and be creative.”
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As the weather gets colder and root vegetables become more prevalent, it can get tricky to entice your guests to try roots and tubers. Bucco says the key is to have your team believe in a culture of seasonality.
“Training is paramount to the success of any initiatives in a restaurant,” he says. “This, however, is more of a philosophy that requires like-thinkers. You have to enjoy ingredients to continue to evolve the menu in a relevant fashion.”
A Kind Word Goes a Long Way
As in most other aspects of life, treating people the way you want to be treated pays off. Bruce Moffett, chef/owner of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based Moffett Restaurant Group, advises restaurateurs to make friends with the farmers. It’s a tip he learned through trial and error. “When I first arrived in Charlotte, my first produce order from a food distributor was pretty sad,” he says. “Immediately after that, I knew I had to ingrain myself in the community to be able to make the kind of food I wanted to make.”
A good relationship with farmers, says Moffett, will not only allow you access to fresh, local items, but you might even be able to ask them to plant something especially for you for an upcoming season.
Preserve your haul
Instead of relying on root vegetables to get him through the winter, chef Aaron Lawson of Toledo, Ohio’s classic American eatery Brim House has a few tricks up his sleeve.
“We have many local farms and shops that help to build our menus and keep them current and seasonal. I believe that the ability to keep and stay local is just as important as staying seasonal, which is why we love to take local items and jar them for use throughout the year, manipulating what mother nature gives us and stretching it out a little,” Lawson says.
Whether you keep it strictly seasonal for the flavor profile, or you jar a few things to add brightness in winter, seasonal cooking can be difficult, daunting, and sometimes stressful. But whether you have one rotating seasonal special, or a new menu every day, it’s important to stay focused on what you find important.
Lawson believes that at the end of the day, it’s most important to be proud of what you’re putting forth. “You have to love your food and stand next to it,” he says, “so I always tell my team to be proud of your menus and creative visions, no matter what.”
With seasonal menus comes challenges, but the payoff of working with local farmers and using fresh produce can be pretty sweet.