Fresh Picks: Sourcing Produce for Fall Menus

The current farm-to-fork mindset is changing the way restaurants buy produce. Chef-driven indies were the first to embrace local, seasonal sourcing, but now large chains like Chipotle are partnering with local farms. It’s a trend that can reap benefits for farmers, chefs and restaurant patrons, but there are drawbacks. It’s not always possible to ensure a consistent supply that meets food cost and menu requirements. These operators meet the challenge.

Joseph Gillard
Napa Valley Grille
3 locations

As executive chef at the Napa Valley Grille in Westwood, California, Joseph Gillard has easy access to the Santa Monica Farmers Market. “As a regular, I’ve built relationships there over the years, and the farmers will grow what I’m interested in,” says Gillard. Plus, they have increased their volume and variety to meet his needs. To streamline purchasing, Gillard works with L.A. Specialty—a purveyor that aggregates produce from the Farmers Market and other  vendors and delivers the order.

Although Gillard supports local sourcing, he is not a fanatic—he aims for 80 percent from within 75 miles and 20 percent from nearby states. “If I bought everything at the Farmers Market, I would be out of a job,” he laughs. “Plus, my main goals are flavor and sustainability. If a local product doesn’t taste good, I’ll reject it. You have to consider best practices as part of sustainability; the way a vegetable is produced is as important as its carbon footprint.”

Menu prices reflect this sustainability thinking, but Napa Valley Grill customers understand its value, Gillard believes. And a well-balanced menu with a range of prices and portion sizes offers flexibility. For example, the “Simply Grilled” section lets people choose a moderately priced grilled fish or meat entrée ($19 to $25) to mix and match with seasonal sides, such as Tahitian Squash Puree or Heirloom Tomato Salad ($6). New on the Fall menu is Grilled Amish Pork Chops with Star Anise Spiced Apples ($20). The pork is from heritage pigs and the apples from Windrose Farms in Paso Robles.

Erik Overholtzer
Tender Greens
7 locations

Before he opened the first Tender Greens, co-founder Erik Overholtzer wrote a contract to partner with Scarborough Farms in Oxnard, California. “I had a relationship with them from the past and knew they were small enough to assure quality but big enough to provide a consistent supply,” he says. To support the partnership, Overholtzer gave the farm equity in Tender Greens, which is on course to grow to 30 stores in the next 10 years. “We are now Scarborough’s largest customer,” he adds. “We get preference on ingredients and if there is a shortage, we get the produce first.”

The produce served at Tender Greens is organically grown but not necessarily certified, since certification is expensive for small farms. “Sourcing everything from California protects us against fluctuating exchange rates and shipping costs,” he notes. “We also commit to a certain volume and contract set prices.”

Although the ingredients are topnotch, the entrees on the Tender Greens menu are all priced at $10.50; soups and small salads go for $4 and $5.50 respectively.  “Our chefs come out of fine-dining and employ the same cooking techniques to a fast-casual menu,” explains Overholtzer, “but we took out the bells and whistles that add costs.” The chefs drive seasonal specials that change daily. The Harvest Salad, for example, mixes greens, apples, grapes, squash, artisan cheese and local nuts.

Q and A with Chipotle
Last June, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced that it expects to source 10 million pounds of produce from local farms, double its goal of 5 million pounds in 2010. With 1,100 locations, that’s a lot of veggies. We asked Chris Arnold, Chipotle’s communications director, how they’ll make this happen.

Why this intense focus on locally sourced produce?
Our decision is rooted in serving fresher, better tasting food. Produce that comes from local farms gets to our restaurants closer to the time it was harvested so it’s fresher and more flavorful. It is also more sustainable—by virtue of reducing food miles—and supports rural economies.

How do you find local farms to meet your volume?
It takes a lot of legwork, but we have been able to grow our local produce program year-over-year. To ensure that we have enough volume, we buy all that we can from the local farms, but retain some redundancy in our system so we have enough of all the ingredients we use. For example, in areas like California, we can source locally grown lemons, cilantro, avocados and tomatoes year round, but these ingredients are used in all our stores nationwide.

How do you achieve consistency of product chain-wide?
All of our produce, regardless of where it comes from, must meet the same specifications. We do not compromise on specs or food quality. We are very involved in the review in an ongoing basis of our farm partners to make sure good agricultural practices are followed.     


Ripe and ready for fall

With over 3,000 varieties of pears grown worldwide, there is fruit available in almost every month of the year. But autumn brings bushels of local pears and iconic varieties like Anjou, Bartlett, Bosc, Comice and Seckel. It’s also a good time to get to know lesser-known types, such as Forelle, Concorde and Starkrimson.

Sameh Wadi, chef-owner of Saffron Restaurant and Lounge in Minneapolis, is particularly fond of the Forelle. “This variety has less water content so it’s a bit crunchier. It’s also a sexy pear—very pretty with red freckles on green skin,” he says. At market-driven Saffron, which showcases his native Palestinian cuisine, Wadi shaves pears into salads, slow-cooks them with dates and lamb shanks and bakes them into desserts. But he feels that the crunchiness of Forelles pairs especially well with seafood, so he created Alaskan King Crab with Pear Tabbouleh Salad to play up this partnership.

“In my indigenous cuisine, pears are used more for sweetness and would usually be stewed, but I like the way their raw, crisp texture contrasts with the soft, briny sweetness of the crab,” Wadi explains. The Forelles add another layer of flavor and texture to the grassy tabbouleh salad as well, he adds. Wadi originally featured this dish as part of a five-course tasting menu.

October is a funny month in Minnesota, the chef admits, but he tries to source as much local produce as possible before winter. 

Squash: An autumn icon

September to January is peak season for winter squash—all of which share hard shells, yellow-to-orange flesh and great nutritional profiles. “The large butternut is the standard for foodservice, but chefs are now embracing the smaller varieties for their flavor and shape,” says Robert Schueller of Melissa’s Produce. “Their flesh can be cooked and the scooped-out shell used as a decorative container.”

Blue Hubbard: At 5 to 15 pounds, this bumpy, blue-skinned variety is the largest in the family; also can have green or orange skin.
Buttercup: This medium-sized squash sports a “turban” on top. The sweet flesh has a sweet-potato-like flavor.
Carnival: A cross between acorn and sweet dumpling; flesh is deep yellow and sweet.
Delicata: This long, fluted variety is best steamed; tastes like a cross between sweet potatoes and butternut squash.
Gold Nugget: Shaped like a small pumpkin; bake and use like the more common acorn squash.
Pam Pumpkin: Also goes by the names sugar, pie, sugar pie, baby and mini pumpkin; puree cooked flesh and place back in the shell.
Red Kuri: A 3- to 8-pound squash with bright red-orange rind; orange flesh has a sweet, nutty flavor.
Sweet Dumpling: Similar in size to a grapefruit with very sweet, yellow-orange flesh.