Ever wonder what chefs are thinking?

Recently, Eat Y’all asked six chefs to give us a peek into their minds as it relates to working with farmers and producers. There are some real gems hiding in these simple comments – advice on which businesses will grow or fail.

While each of these chefs work in very different markets and restaurant types, but each share an outstanding commitment to thoughtful sourcing bringing the farm to table movement to life in their own way.  

The following chefs took time to answer our questions to help you better understand their perspective:

  • Bill Briand, Executive Chef at Fisher’s and Playa in Orange Beach, AL
  • Jean-Paul Bourgeois, Executive Chef at Blue Smoke in New York City
  • Simon Brown, Executive Chef at Blake Street House in Bentonville, AR
  • Rob McDaniel, Executive Chef at Springhouse in Alexander City, AL
  • Ryan Rogers, founder of Louisville, KY based HiCotton Hospitality and a chef / restaurateur operating multiple restaurant concepts
  • Jonathan Searle, Executive Chef at Lockbox in Lexington, KY

Many thanks to these amazing chefs both for their support of our producers and their time to answer these questions!

QUESTION: What do you wish producers knew about your job?

Bourgeois: It’s not always as much as chefs like to say about getting the best possible product. Obviously, we need to get the best possible product — under the circumstances and restrictions that are put upon our business. So the best strawberries are awesome; getting great beautiful strawberries is the best. If I’m making a strawberry shortcake for a small bakery, maybe that’s not the best route of financial resources to use on strawberries. Maybe you’re better off buying really great flour or butter for that. I think you have to weigh out your options on what is feasible for your business, so it’s not always about the 100% best [ingredient]. It’s also about working within the guidelines and circumstances of your business – how can I get the best product under those?

Whether it’s produce, beef, hogs or fish, pricing fluctuates, so don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t make promises you can deliver on Saturdays when you can’t every Saturday. Or promise you’ll have asparagus until middle to late summer. Be honest, be clear. The chef knows if he’s worked with farmers, whether it’s produce or livestock, that prices fluctuate. Be honest and communicate. Communicate and be clear on what you’re able to do and how you’re able to do it.

When it’s a new vendor: weekly or biweekly check-ins. Farmers: when it comes to vegetables and the sun’s beating down on greens that may slow or kill a harvest, constant communication [is in order] when it comes to fresh produce. Whether it’s voice, text or email. It’s probably best to send a product list through text or email and not voice because a chef has something to go off of when it’s written down. Talking to farmers is great, but when it comes to product lists, it needs to be in a written format.

We often talk a lot about chefs knowing their farmers and in a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s reciprocated in the farmers knowing their chefs. I’ve had great relationships with farmers in the past and that includes going to their farms to be a part of what they’re doing and even helping harvest produce for a day as a team building exercise as a restaurant. But those farmers also reciprocated by coming into the restaurant and eating to see how their food is being prepared. So, I think really good collaborative relationship as a farmer is a two way street and just like the chef needs to know the farmer and what they’re growing, I think it’s important for the farmer to know the chef and how they’re using the product.

Briand: [Deliver] clean produce. Ask a chef when he would want to be contacted. Fresh and quality is #1.

Check in every other week for [something like] rice; every week for produce. I prefer early in the a.m.

Brown: The stress of consistency and reliability [of the dishes served to our customers].

That we love them dearly, they put their lives, blood and sweat into producing a product that we have the opportunity to showcase through our talents to provide our guests. We are truly in their debt.

Call once or twice a week to check in – sometimes bi-weekly [is okay].

McDaniel: I feel like we are pretty like minded. We [both] work very hard, long hours to produce something that we are proud to serve / sell to other people.

We want to support them in every way that we can. We do have budgets to stick to and sometimes our slow season just happens to hit when things are really taking off [on the farm]. When we say no it’s not because we are getting it elsewhere or don’t want it. Running [our] business responsibly is just as important as any other facet of the chef’s work.

Farms should know how much chefs appreciate them and the job they do.

Rogers: Just like you, when we’re at work, we’re working. Don’t show up out of the blue expecting us to be able to step away from whatever we’re doing and talk to you. If we agree to a day and time to meet, please respect that and I’ll do my best to respect your time as well.

If you’re not on my schedule do not expect me to answer your call. If you email me, and I’m interested I will get back in touch with you. If you don’t hear from me, feel free a week later to follow up through email.

Searle: We need lead time. If we are aware of what you have and plan on it, we can get it on the menu and really showcase the items. If you show up with something new un-announced, it can be difficult. Do we even have it in the budget to spend this week? Let us know what you have [in advance], and we can put it into rotation.

Showing up 30 minutes before service begins is no way to do business. Just be aware of the service periods of the restaurant, and try to work with them. We want to be able to look through the product, taste, check quality and engage with the farmer. We can’t do that if service is minutes from starting or if we’re in the middle of lunch. Also, [don’t] just drop an order and leave an invoice without talking to a chef on duty.  If there is ever a quality issue we want to be able to correct it on the spot.

I would say in the beginning [of a relationship, call], once a week. Dialogue [with chef] on inventory,  length of season and lead time on certain produce. Develop a schedule of once a week availability / prices then set the delivery schedule. [For me,] mid-day is the best, 2 to 4 p.m., after lunch but before dinner.

We want to support them in every way that we can. We do have budgets to stick to and sometimes our slow season just happens to hit when things are really taking off [on the farm]. When we say no it’s not because we are getting it elsewhere or don’t want it. Running our business responsibly is just as important as any other facet of the chef’s work.

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