As Memphis chefs connect with regional farmers, local food becomes a way of life as well as a source of pride
According to market manager Maryanne Lessley, the Memphis Farmers Market began as a way to provide the public with fresh produce, but many chefs have been supporters since its inception. "It's wonderful because the chefs are the leaders," she says. "Chefs are coming because this is the highest quality of food we can get, and they like to gear their menus toward the season." The market takes place downtown at Central Station on Saturdays from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m., April through October. Summer and winter dinner tours featuring local foods prepared by chefs at area restaurants serve as fund-raisers for the market.
Robin Rodriguez, the chapter leader for Slow Food Memphis, believes that interest in local foods involves many factors. "I think some of it is economic in nature, and also there's more consumer awareness," she says. "There's pride in what is uniquely regional and uniquely local."
Stephen Hassinger, innkeeper for the Inn at Hunt Phelan, which boasts an expansive herb garden and two honeybee hives, has supported the market since day one. "The whole 'locavore-as-the-word-of-the-year' thing came about, and that's great," he says, "but I never thought about doing this any other way." He enjoys meeting those who produce the food "one-on-one, instead of buying from a faceless entity."
Days before a Memphis Farmers Market dinner at Tsunami, I sit down with Ben Smith, the restaurant's chef/owner. "This is a huge agricultural area," he remarks, "and I think this is just society coming full circle. Something that I've been preaching here is that the best stuff is the local stuff that's ripe and in season."
During the summer of 1998 when Tsunami opened, Smith's mother called from Ripley, Tennessee, to tell him about a nearby farmer who was growing tomatoes. So, Smith drove out to see the farm and meet the farmer, Tinker Talley. "As we toured the farm, we walked through rows of heirloom tomatoes, fallen and rotting on the ground. He couldn't sell them. I picked two bushel baskets for free and brought them back for tomato plates," Smith says.
Soon, Talley set up a stand outside Tsunami and sold tomatoes there. Smith continues to invite farmers to sell produce in the lot beside the restaurant. Early this past spring, Van Cheeseman of Flora: The Gardens at Bluebird Farms offered some of the first baby greens of the season there, and Dodson Farms offered their beautiful produce along with great ideas for cooking it.
While we're chatting about the availability of squash blossoms this year, Smith mentions that he needs to call Tim's Family Farm to request some blossoms for the upcoming dinner. One of the owners has promised him a recipe for squash blossom soup.
"When you own a restaurant, you're so wrapped up in the business of running a business," Smith muses. "Cooking, getting the food on the plate, making sure the plates get out to the table, managing the wait staff . . . there's so much. Then you have these little moments when you've created a plate, and you set it down in front of your staff for them to taste, and you have a moment of wow, that's good, or I liked how that ended up. You think, 'I picked these strawberries today, or I bought these from my friend down at the market today. Wish they could be here to see what I've done with what they've grown.' That's one of those warm, fuzzy moments that I look for as a chef — just for a split-second sometimes, you can look down at a plate and get a happy feeling about what's there."
Smith continues, "I think consumers are starting to get some of that these days. They're starting to understand and appreciate the beauty of it and the nostalgia of it. That's a good thing for us as a society: to understand the importance of sustaining our agriculture and to know where our food comes from."
Jackson Kramer, executive chef of Interim and chef/partner at Sole, thoroughly enjoys sourcing and featuring local produce and meat on his menus. "It's the right moral thing to do," he says, "It's not really a trend because it's something everyone should be doing as much as possible."
The farmers who supply Kramer sing his praises and commend his constant support; he takes the time to visit their farms and pick what's in season. Kramer says, "Besides the fact that the food is fresher, the most important thing about using local is that the money's going straight back into the local economy and to the farmers."
Kramer always stops by the Farmers Market at the Garden, located on the grounds of the Memphis Botanic Garden every Wednesday from 2 to 6 p.m. Farmers deliver weekly orders to Interim, set aside produce for Kramer, or just stop by with what's fresh.
Local and regional food is the norm at Interim, sustained by Kramer's lengthy list of suppliers. He notes that the vegetable plate at Interim showcases his weekly finds from the markets, and on Sunday nights, there's a special $30, three-course dinner with three different options per course, featuring local and regional foods. Kramer is also planning a dinner this summer to support GrowMemphis, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center's community garden program.
"Our job as chefs," Kramer asserts, "is to keep pushing this and to educate the public about what they're eating."
Felicia Suzanne Willett, chef/proprietor of Felicia Suzanne's, is dedicated to making her usual rounds at the Memphis Farmers Market, no matter what. She even made a quick trip home during the weekend of her sister's wedding festivities to stock up for that week. "It's just what I know," she says about her use of local foods. "It's in my blood. I know what I'm putting in my body. I know where it's from."
In late June, she invites me to go to the market with her. Big sunglasses in place and coffee in hand, Willett gets down to business, and I try to keep up. First, she chats with the guys at Jones Orchard and then stops by the Bonnie Blue Farms stand to check out the goat's milk and smoked feta. Willett buys a tall bouquet from Jill Forrester and teases Keith Forrester of Whitton Produce before buying an endless box of red potatoes and yellow squash. At The Gracious Garden, Willett fills her canvas bags with arugula for a salad with watermelon, Bonnie Blue goat cheese, and Delta Pecans. Willett checks in with Michael Lenagar from Neola Farms about what she'll need next week and points out the Dodson Farms sweet potatoes she uses for chips at the bar. She buys pints of blueberries from Pontotoc Ridge Blueberry Farm and refuses to let the young owners cut her a deal. "No, you should charge more!" she tells them and laughs.
Next, she selects green beans, zucchini, and eggplant at Ly Vu Homegrown Produce and discusses how she wants to prepare chickens from Kimberlie Cole's certified-organic West Wind Farms. Lastly, there's the task of rounding up all the purchases and loading them up to be taken back to Felicia Suzanne's. It's exciting to think that it's all going to be served at her restaurant in a few hours.
Willett mentions that she likes to buy from all of the vendors, and they love it when she stops by. I also bear witness to the effort she puts forth — in 95-degree heat, no less. Willett simply says, "I wouldn't do it if I didn't believe in it."
At this point, I begin to wonder what the farmers think about all of this attention. Holly Springs, Mississippi, farmer Van Cheeseman, owner of Flora: The Gardens at Bluebird Farms, often emails chefs during the winter and makes deliveries once a week; during the growing season, many chefs come to him, visiting the markets where he sells his produce. "I try to listen to the chefs and grow what they like," he says. "They've been a big help to me, and I'm all for them. They really help me see the new directions and trends that are coming up."
Keith and Jill Forrester own Whitton Flowers and Produce, located near Tyronza, Arkansas. I give Jill Forrester a call and catch her right after a delivery to Sole Restaurant and Raw Bar; Executive Chef Matthew Crone had invited the Forresters to stay for dinner. She says, "What I think is cool about Memphis is that it's a city with a vast number of restaurants with chefs who practice what they preach and have so much local food on their menus. When they put us on their menu, it puts our farm out there, and it furthers the local food movement. It adds a mystique to each restaurant that practices it, and it adds a new dimension to the meal itself. Every little bit helps a sustainable farming operation."
Ken Lansing, owner of certified-organic Windermere Farms & Apiaries in Raleigh, appreciates the visibility that the markets provide his business and applauds the chefs' support. "Chefs come in and buy more than what a normal purchase usually is," he remarks. "It makes it so I can bring more to market because I know the restaurants will be there to buy." Lansing says the chefs are always buying whatever is in season; honey, honeycombs, and every type of berry have been sought after by Memphis chefs this year.
Neola Farms' dry-aged USDA Prime Angus beef from Tipton County is lauded by a large number of Memphis chefs. Owner Michael Lenagar says, "This has been the highlight of my career, working with these chefs and getting to eat what these men and women cook. Every week, we go eat at the restaurants we supply." As demand grows, Lenager is pleased. "There are always people out there who will pay for good food," he asserts. "It's not just a class of people. It's the richest and the poorest. There is a culture out there for this."
Restaurant Iris' chef-owner Kelly English, recently named one of Food and Wine's Best Chefs of 2009, has Neola Farms beef simmering on the stove for a batch of his popular — and now nationally known — Natchitoches meat pies when I stop by. While slicing up a slab of his favorite bacon from Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, he explains his commitment to buying local. He likes to get to the downtown market before eight, and says, "It's also a social outlet for us chefs. They don't let us out of the kitchen very often."
The farmers markets he frequented when he worked in Barcelona for six months inspired him. He notes that just like the farmers who sell in Memphis, the farmers there were all very proud of what they sold. He also mentions his time spent tending the farm at John Besh's La Provence.
English points to a five-course "local peach dégustation" he recently developed using peaches from Jones Orchard. "People innately want to eat what's in season. Our bodies know what to have and when to have it," he says. "Doing the local thing is definitely not the easiest or cheapest way, but it's something that I take a lot of pride in. I want to support our local farmers; I don't want to make some guy in Idaho rich."
"I think this is a very, very, very exciting time in Memphis," English says. "I feel privileged to be here. We have so many chefs and leaders in the community supporting local food, and it's incredible."
I shadow farmer Lori Greene on an afternoon delivery to two Memphis restaurants. She and her husband Alex Greene own Downing Hollow Farm, which is located near Savannah, Tennessee, and she helps other farmers in that area grow produce, too. She brings the best of it to the Farmers Market at the Garden each Wednesday, and she supplies many area restaurants. Greene says that there is an opportunity now for urban gardeners to start a side business. Soon, her sister Sue Easley arrives and begins sorting and dividing baby lettuce from her own garden. With produce packed in coolers, we caravan to the first stop: Tsunami.
We catch Ben Smith planning dinner; he takes one look at Greene and says, "Please tell me you've brought me my menu for tonight!"
Easley's baby lettuce is approved immediately — her first sale — and Smith also claims Greene's bright heirloom tomatoes. He decides to tempura some of Greene's provider beans. I eavesdrop as Greene and Smith discuss preparation and look over a seed catalog. As we get ready to leave, a relieved Smith says, "Thank you for solving my small-plate problem."
Our next stop is Restaurant Iris, where Kelly English ushers us into the kitchen. It's around five o'clock, the time when all the kitchens in Memphis really get cracking. English quickly tastes everything. He wants to use Easley's baby greens for salads at dinner and bites into a leaf as he gets the background information about them.
"What else?" he asks Greene. Excitedly, he passes around Greene's heirloom tomatoes and tosses one to me across the kitchen. He buys fennel, potatoes, and napa cabbage. "One fell swoop, you just got rid of it all!" English says and asks some hopeful questions about what's still in season.
What a sight: Two chefs who had so calmly and methodically outlined their preference for and support of local food just hours earlier become downright giddy when it's right there in front of them. It seems all the talking in the world about local food is nothing compared to the pleasure of tasting it.
Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer, chef/owners of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, love using what's local so much that they have carved out a full garden, complete with herbs, produce, and flowers in the space behind their restaurant. When they first saw the property, the space for a garden beckoned. One day, with their dads' help, they put down the sod, the gravel, the dirt, and built the raised beds. Hudman says, "When we went to Italy and saw all of the gardens, it really hit me: That's why their food tastes so good. They do with what they have there."
In their garden, Hudman and Ticer grow a variety of tomatoes; we pause to try one. Anyone who cooks with them is asked to taste-test a local tomato and one that's been shipped-in and then discuss the contrast. They also have dill and fennel pollen ready to be pounded into flour or sprinkled on sweetbreads. Their swiss chard is soon to be paired with pork cheeks. It's a nice view from the patio, and it's going to look even better on a plate.
Both chefs learned about what's available locally from the other chefs in Memphis. "There's a new wave of energy coming into Memphis," Ticer says. "There are a lot of young, entrepreneurial chefs coming here and doing their own thing."
Chef Michael Patrick of Automatic Slim's is a familiar presence at the Memphis Farmers Market. "For me, it really puts a community together," he says. "It's all about supporting your local people, and they'll support you." He uses what he buys at the market in bread pudding, vegetable plates, and the featured vegetable of the day. "If a guest knows that it's from a local farm, there's a connection, I think," Patrick says.
Muddy's Bake Shop, Kat Gordon's cheerful pastel paradise in East Memphis, is a one-stop shop for cupcakes, cookies, cakes, and pies as well as local foods and work by area artisans. Gordon explains, "When we buy local, we're voting with our dollars and voting with our forks so that money comes back into the community. Especially in a time when people are losing jobs, it's important to think, 'Am I going to spend with people I know or people I don't?'" She buys peaches, strawberries, and blueberries for her pies and preserves at the markets, and uses free-range eggs provided by various local farmers. Out-of-towners "love it because they feel like they're actually going somewhere that is Memphis," she says.
Miles McMath, senior executive chef at St. Jude, is also committed to using local foods, and many vendors say that the work he's doing is making them proud. He's created a "market atmosphere" at the Kay Kafe with a blackboard that highlights the local produce being used that day. "Based on our purchasing power, we have an opportunity to make a difference," McMath says. He plans to make his menu as local as possible as the growing season progresses, and hopes to explore projects such as a hospital garden and a Community Supported Agriculture program for employees. McMath adds, "It's so easy to eat good food."
When it comes to local food, a widespread pride in Memphis agriculture is taking root. Capturing the essence of the local foods movement, Ben Smith of Tsunami says: "It's a beautiful time for chefs and a beautiful, challenging time for farmers. Now farmers are the rock stars. Chefs have had their 15 minutes, and now it's great to see farmers come to a level of recognition that they so deserve."