Ten years ago, Emeril Lagasse proclaimed food in this country to be “more exciting than anywhere else in the world.”
“It’s cool to be a farmer and it’s cool to be chef,” he said. Bam!
It’s a label that flatters farmers such as Doug Raubenolt of Tea Hills Poultry in Loudonville and chefs such as Michael Mariola of South Market Bistro in Wooster along with a growing number of their Ohio colleagues who partner to bring homegrown flavors into restaurant kitchens.
For the youthful Mariola, finding farmers who can supply great ingredients, important tools of his trade, is a standard of doing business as well as a signature statement for his 38-seat downtown bistro. His definition of local has less to do with distance from his kitchen door and more to do with farmers who produce a good product and have a reliable delivery system in place.
“It would definitely be easier to just pick up the phone and order everything I need from a distributor,” Mariola said. “Working one-on-one with farmers like Doug, knowing what he can supply and how it was raised, blows every other source away. Our customers recognize the effort it takes because they are always telling me how good the food tastes.”
Raubenolt raises organic, pastured poultry on his 215-acre Ashland County farm. Having the opportunity to provide a product and then have chefs highlight it on their menus, and to their customers, is a glowing endorsement and important approval for a job well done. “I’m just an old farm boy,” he said. “But when I see Tea Hills Poultry on a menu, well that’s special.
“Chefs like Michael steer me in different directions when it comes to raising poultry,” Raubenolt said. Between all his restaurant accounts, more than 20 from Columbus to northeast Ohio, each chef has a particular preference for the weight and breed of the bird. Mariola prefers birds weighing 4.5 pounds, yielding larger breast meat. So between April and November, Raubenolt will process and deliver approximately 500 White Mountain Cornish chickens to the bistro. “Having a close working relationship with a chef indirectly puts me in contact with the customer because the chef always shares their comments,” he said.
While a natural connection exists between the field and fork, featuring locally grown and raised meats and produce on a restaurant’s menu requires dedication. On an average, Mariola tries to stock his pantry and cooler with close to 75 percent locally grown and raised products, but it’s a constant balancing act. “I have to work with the harvest season and Mother Nature,” he said, noting the curves she can throw a farmer such as unfavorable weather or natural predators.
Chef Mariola and his staff spend more than five hours a week talking, visiting and working with farmers, a time consuming and demanding aspect of seeking out product sources. To assist chefs like him, Local Matters, a nonprofit, volunteer organization funded in part by the Ohio Farm Bureau Foundation, nurtures business relationships between local chefs and growers throughout Columbus and central Ohio. Martha Balint, the project coordinator, said it’s all about getting good food on the table.
“During the height of the harvest season, we publish a weekly `fresh sheet’ featuring local producers, what they have available for chefs, as well as ordering and delivery or pickup details,” she explained. The sheets are circulated to more than 30 different restaurants, grocery stores and institutional buyers but “it’s the chefs’ demands that really drive this program.”
Across the state, farmers and chefs are forging working relationships with something as simple as a handshake to seeking each other out through organized collaboratives and farm-to-chef networks. Every time a farmer and chef connect, they help strengthen the regional food economy and provide quality products on the plate. One bite, and the customer will immediately recognize what is at work between the two.
Marilou Suszko is a freelance writer from Vermilion.
Attention teachers and parents: Find out how this story connects to Ohio’s Academic Content standards for social studies.
South Market Bistro, Chef Michael Mariola
151 South Market Street, Wooster
Northstar Cafe, Chef Kevin Malhame
951 North High Street, Columbus
“We want to be great at what we do,” said Kevin Malhame, chef and co-owner of Northstar Cafe in Columbus’ Short North. “Buying local gives us access to great ingredients.” The cafe works with about a dozen Ohio farmers year-round including Erik Manges from Verdant Pastures in Sullivan. Each week, Manges delivers 180 dozen fresh eggs, which wind up in baked goods and breakfast dishes. Get to Northstar early this spring if you crave that first taste of locally grown asparagus, which Malhame sums up as “fantastic.”
The Village Bakery & Cafe,
Chef Christine Hughes
268 East State Street, Athens
Chef Christine Hughes uses her purchasing power to support Ohio farms. Throughout the year, she works with 40 to 60 farmers to keep her cupboard stocked with fresh produce, maple syrup, eggs, pork and poultry and farmstead cheeses from Oakvale in London that go into her flaky quiches, pastries and breads. Hughes’ biggest joy is working with
local farmers. “The relationships are very enriching,” she said. Look for the tender spinach dishes and local wild mushrooms that pop up on her spring menu to roasted butternut squash featured in autumn pies and soups.
Fire Food & Drink, Chef Doug Katz
13220 Shaker Square, Cleveland
Doug Katz is serious about buying local products, right down to the wood used to fuel his tandoori oven. Katz works with more than 20 farmers year-round, but one of his most consistent suppliers is Killbuck Valley Mushrooms near Wooster, which regularly provides a wide variety of wild and exotic mushrooms such as porcini, shiitake and chantrelles. “When buying local and seasonal, you have to change your mindset,” Katz said. “Flexibility with the menu is key because you rely on the ingredients and the season, not the shopping list.”
Nectar Restaurant, Chef Julie Francis
1000 Delta Ave, Cincinnati
Chef Julie Francis can’t say what will be on her menu come spring, summer or fall. “I just have to wait and see what the local farmers can offer,” said the owner of Nectar, a neighborhood restaurant in suburban Cincinnati. She considers the element of change that comes with buying with the season and fresh from the farm an exciting aspect of her job. As the harvest season is long, Francis will feature organic vegetables and naturally raised lamb from Turner Farms in Hamilton County. “It’s right here in my backyard,” said Francis, “so why not take advantage of that.”