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The Go-Betweens

Food Finders Connect Chefs With the Source

Article from The Washington Post

By Melissa McCart
Special to The Washington Post
Middleman Javier Arze, left, sources supplies for chefs including Frank Ruta of Palena.
Middleman Javier Arze, left, sources supplies for chefs including Frank Ruta of Palena. (Dominic Bracco II - For The Washington Post)

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.

Why is the absence of a middleman a hassle for chefs? Just ask Eric Ziebold of CityZen.

Once a week, the Department of Agriculture's Farmers Market sets up two blocks away from his restaurant. When Ziebold visits, the most he can carry back, he says, is two flats of tomatoes and five pounds of haricots verts. "Suddenly, two blocks is very far away," he says. "I'll have a trail of tomatoes two blocks behind me. I'll have to call someone to help."

In addition, Ziebold says, once he gets to the farmers market, he often can't get enough of what he needs. "If there are no strawberries and you plan on having strawberries on the menu, you're in trouble," he says. "That's pretty late to find out you don't have access to an ingredient. There's really a sourcing challenge here. Guests do not want to hear there are no strawberries at the farmers market."

Ziebold sees a dramatic difference between distribution here and in northern California, where he was a sous-chef at the French Laundry: "Getting products here is extremely challenging."

In this area, says Equinox general manager Ellen Gray, "farmers can't serve chefs the way they do in northern California." Gray is the co-owner and wife of chef-owner Todd Gray; she was in food distribution for 12 years, first for Sysco, the national distribution giant, then for D'Artagnan, a New York company that has supplied foie gras, quail and game birds to chefs such as the late Jean-Louis Palladin, Roberto Donna and Cam.

Traffic, parking tickets, long drives, money collection, temperamental chefs and expensive warehouse spaces are among the challenges that make distribution less than seductive. Here, she says, "distribution is the butt end of the business -- not to mention, it's not very profitable."

Under the leadership of Mie N Yu in Georgtown, several area restaurants and restaurant groups recently banded to confront distribution problems. They're starting with meat.

Mie N Yu general manager Oren Molovinsky and his brother Tomer have set up Farm to Table, a partnership between 20 local Virginia farmers and participating restaurants to supply chefs with whole animals. The effort is co-sponsored by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the Nation's Capital Chef's Association. Participants (Black's Restaurant Group, Capital Restaurant Concepts and Clyde's among them) buy whole cows, lambs and pigs through the organization. In turn, Farm to Table deals with streamlining invoices, delivery and payment to farmers.

Restaurants that can't commit to buying whole animals can work with Arthur Alafoginis of the Capital Meat Co., who has created an offshoot organization called Virginia's Best that allows chefs to order 20 or 30 pounds by the cut.

Farm to Table hopes to add produce distribution later this year in conjunction with D.C. Central Kitchen. But "consistency is an issue," says Tomer Molovinsky.

"Say you pick up 12 peaches for a chef and upon delivery he doesn't like four," says Gray, whose restaurant has not signed on with Farm to Table. "What do you do with the rejects?" A partner organization such as D.C. Central Kitchen, an anti-hunger and job-training agency, could absorb produce that chefs do not want or need.

Once Farm to Table distributes more widely, Tomer Molovinsky says, "we should be able to reduce logistics costs for all of our participating chefs."

Despite that mobilization of resources, Arze says he doesn't see it changing his operation much. "I tell people I'm in the logistics industry," he says. "There are so many details, and that's what's neat about it."

Arze says his love of the outdoors, his love of food and his friendships with chefs such as Armstrong and Ruta motivate him more than money. He also likes the idea of adhering to foodways of the past.

"When it comes to food and cooking, simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve," he says. "And that's what I'm trying to do here."

Melissa McCart writes the Counter Intelligence blog at http://melissamccart.wordpress.com.

 

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