You don´t have to own a restaurant in the heart of Hippie Humboldt County to realize the fresh food movement is sweeping the country. I would like to state, for the record, that I am not I am not a fresh veggie — Vegan driving a Volvo through the streets of Sebastopol. However, I will tell you that I enjoy Sebastopol, I did consider buying a Volvo in 1985, and I find fresh vegetables, perfectly prepared, delightful. I look for menus during the summer months that highlight the bounty of their locale.
I also realize, naturally, or unnaturally, there will always be the proverbial #10 can of green beans in the storage closet of most restaurants. Simply for emergencies I hope. More on this at a later date.
We all know August is the perfect time to take advantage of the succulent servings of summer. As bumper crops continue to overtake farms and gardens across the country there are some great deals on vegetables that can really help bring plate costs down and put a smile on customer´s faces. With Farmer´s Markets opening in every town built on dirt, it is a culinary edict to serve fresh vegetables, creatively prepared with each of your entrees.
The first things to go are those flavorless, mealy, tomatoes that have to be tolerated throughout the winter months.
John McReynolds, chef and co-owner of Café La Haye in Sonoma, doesn´t even offer tomatoes throughout the winter on his menu. May and June may also be tomato-less months at La Haye. McReynolds prides himself in flavors and we all have to admit there is nothing pleasing about a tomato that tastes like a cold, cardboard science project.
There is hope on the horizon. Years ago when I first moved to Carmel, a magazine publisher in Carmel Valley decided to plant some Heirloom tomatoes. That was in 1994. He had a bumper crop two years later and decided to invite some friends to help him harvest the plants. Now, his Heirloom Tomato Festival is an annual event. You don´t have to go to Carmel valley to find this colorful artwork.
Heirloom tomatoes are now as common in most regions as watermelons are in July. Every Farmers Market boasts baskets of them in an array of colors. If you haven´t used them, and many restaurants still stay away from them, put them on your menu while you still can. When you realize the price of flavor is not that expensive to offer you will give the cardboard "matoes the boot this winter.
Fresh vegetables seem to be more enjoyable to prepare. The snap of a fresh broccoli stem sure beats the limpness of a coolerized flower that has seen better days.
A bonus of summer is getting to know your farmers market farmers. Take a few hours and research the vegetables at your local market. Get to know the card table vendors. We often overlook some of our greatest assets that appear in front of us daily.
Renowned artist, G.R.Cheesebrough taught me about Farmers Markets in 1990. I had just purchased Crocus Hill. One Saturday he showed up at the store with a customized white produce smock. It once belonged to Frank according to the patch above the pocket. G.R. explained that I should head to the market, walk around, touch, feel, smell the vegetables and get to know the vendors. He explained that it would be a great publicity stunt for all the other shoppers at the market. A way of letting customers know Crocus Hill shopped at the farm, the produce at the market was fresh.
G.R.´s stunt grew into a lifestyle. Although the smock has since passed on, my daily food shopping ritual can be attributed to him. To this day I pick up the tomatoes, I bend the celery and the broccoli to test its snap limit, give the Blue Lake Beans a limpness test. Although I don´t know if he knew the effect his idea would have on my life and businesses when he delivered smock-less Frank´s smock on that spring Saturday morning, my Farmer´s Market sojourns charted the way vegetables were utilized in my restaurants. We creatively played with our plates. Summer months lend themselves to that culinary experimentation that keeps customers wanted more, all winter long.
Let´s take a look at this. If we all took McReynolds´ concept, and only served vegetables that were flavorful, and rejected the lab experiments that are sold as fruit and produce. If we practiced G.R.´s theory, sans smock, and came to know our local farmers and supported them when they had the produce we needed, think of the impact that would have on our plate presentation and our customers.
Multiply that by 880,000 restaurants. Subtract the fast food emporiums and multiply that number by the millions who dine out at least once a day. That´s an heirloom thought.
It´s time to get fresh with your customers. And, they will enjoy it.