I really don't shop at the farmer's market as much as I should. Actually I don't grocery shop much altogether. There are several reasons for this 1) I work in a restaurant so the day I work we can eat staff meal 2) Cooking for myself sometimes seems wasteful 3) with many options to eat out at various prices ranges, temptations are hard to fight.
Will the arrival of fall I'm eager to cook more at home so I recently went to the farmer's market. In my four years of living here I've been to the farmer's market numerous time but going to the market with a chef was something I'd never done and had wanted to do. The sous chef of the restaurant I work at allowed me to join his shopping excursion. Believe when I say it's a completely different experience.
The chef will visit the farmer's market a few times a week, either at Union Square or at Borough Hall in Brooklyn. Generally, from what I've known and seen, the sous chef, who is in charge of ordering produce and ingredients, will order after dinner service so that it can arrive the following day. This is sufficient for meats, fish, cheese or other products where the shelf life is slightly longer or where there is a particular purveyor that the restaurant orders from and/or has a relationship with.
However it's not the same for vegetables and fruits. You see, as our chef said, you don't know what they'll send you. Say you order zucchini, but because you aren't actually choosing each individual zucchini yourself, you don't know if they'll send you the nice, medium-sized, straight ones that you want. Similarly, it is ideal to purchase vegetables that are in season. Our restaurant changes its appetizers seasonally. Tomatoes will not be as delicious when the summer heat is gone and nights get colder. This might make sense to most people but it's is very apparent when you're buying and eating the produce.
We meet at the the market. Chef starts at the south end of the farmer's market and we look at some peppers at a stand that basically sell only peppers. Side note: In case you weren't aware, though it's written in my about page, my father is an organic farmer. Although it's impossible to know about every vegetable and fruit, when I don't know or recognize one I ask a lot of questions. We were at this stand and there were peppers I'd never heard of or seen. They were stunningly pretty as they came in all sorts of colors and shapes. We tried a few but chef chose to move onto another stand.
This next stand is one of the larger vegetable stands in the market and the presentation of their produce is done effectively. As a buyer I have plenty of experience shopping a farmer's market, as a seller however, I've only done it once with my father and his family several years ago. From a seller's perspective, it is more successful to have an abundance of produce displayed. It seems customers are more inclined to buy from what they see a plentiful that what is scarce. This farm stand is always busy and I think it is because they have a lot of everything. Here chef chose stonecrops, a succulent used in salads or as a garnish. Additionally we discovered jujube or Asian dates. These small fruits were crunchy, slightly sweet with a hint of tartness. They look like small apples. Simply fascinating so chef bought some of these as well.
The following vegetable also exemplified a nice layout and abundant displays. This farm is in New Jersey and chef seemed to have a great relationship with them. He introduced to the manager of the farm and we chose Jimmy Nardello Italian peppers, habañero peppers, Red Kuri squash, cilantro, zucchini and various greens. It is here that I hear chef have a discussion about how vegetables are doing and how much longer the farmers can anticipate having summer vegetables. The market is where the ideas for special dishes come to fruition.
At the last stand we bump into a former sous chef that worked at our restaurant. After introductions, I busy myself with choosing small, mild red peppers and we pick up husk cherries, a fruit in the tomatillo family that is sweet, tart and compliments meat dishes.
By now we have bags of vegetables and fruits and it's time for chef to head to the restaurant and starting preparing many of this produce for tonight's dinner specials. This experience will forever change how I approach the farmer's market. And this was only early fall! Imagine the options in the middle of summer!
Hope this gave you some insight into the day-to-day aspects of a chef's job. I truly believe that fresh, quality produce and ingredients (not necessarily more expensive) make dishes and food taste better. The beauty of nature, the love and care of the people that grow or make it and the care taken by those that sell it culminate to create delicious produce.
How often do you shop at the farmer's market? What are some of your favorite produce to buy for fall?