Wednesday, June 10, 2009
One day last month, Javier Arze was walking in the woods near his Springfield townhouse when he stumbled upon morels: those spongy, honeycombed mushrooms of spring that foodies fawn over for their nutty flavor. Next thing he knew, he was filling a 10-pound bag every day, several days in a row. “I’m talking a lot of mushrooms,” Arze says.
A former chef for Yannick Cam at Provence and former executive chef at Catalan, the Bolivian-born Arze was thrilled, not just because he loves morels. He can sell them to dozens of restaurant chefs who count themselves among his clients. Morels mean money. “When I told Frank Ruta,” chef-owner at Palena in Cleveland Park, “he said to me, ‘Isn’t that wonderful? It’s like finding gold.’ ”
Though his partner in his business, Huntsman Specialty Game & More, raises quail, pheasant, partridge and squab on a farm outside Richmond, Arze makes his living as a runner rather than as a farmer. Much of Arze’s profits come from locating and supplying local meats such as Shenandoah lamb, venison and beef.
Arze says his former life as a chef has helped him attract clients: He’s more aggressive at finding the highest-quality products because he knows what to look for. “I was trained by Yannick Cam to be very demanding,” he says. Chefs seem to like his deliveries: He works with 40 to 60 of them, and many are among the most well-regarded chefs in the area.
Chefs’ interest and consumer demand for local produce and locally raised meat have been stoked by the likes of Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan and first lady Michelle Obama, whose White House kitchen garden is a symbol of just how front-and-center the trend has become.
As a gatherer-deliverer of local ingredients, Arze has company. Virginia oyster farmer Bruce Wood handles local rockfish, freshwater eel, razor clams and pork. Bob Joachim of Westmoreland Berry Farm picks up produce from other farmers at weekday markets for a handful of chefs on Tuesdays and Fridays, when he’s in town.
The three have found a niche because the area lacks an efficient means of distribution between farms and restaurants. Distribution can be an expensive venture, so few have made it their business.
“There’s plenty of supply. There’s plenty of demand. But there’s little distribution,” says Cathal Armstrong, chef-owner at Restaurant Eve. “It’s the weakest link.”
To obtain a local product — say, tomatoes — without a middleman, chefs have three options. They can go to farmers markets themselves to choose tomatoes that meet their standards, a time-consuming endeavor that’s also expensive. The tomatoes cost the chefs between $3 and $5 a pound, the same price home cooks pay, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll find enough of them.
Chefs also can build a relationship with a farmer who will deliver directly to the restaurant several times a week. That is a rarity in the Washington market, where the price of gas and the farmer’s costs bump up the price.
A third choice is to pay between 90 cents and $1.80 per pound to a non-local wholesaler that does not guarantee the freshness or offer the cachet that impresses diners.
For chefs whose businesses rely on carrying local products, the third, least-expensive route is not an option. And the first two can drive up the price of meals at a time when restaurateurs are worried about the effects of the recession on dining habits.