Thinking Inside the Box:
Can the CSA Model Work for Chefs?
by Dani Nordin
Across Massachusetts and the rest of the nation, more and more families are discovering the rewards of joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA)-once they adjust to a few challenges and form some new habits.
But how well does this model of pre-paying for a full season's harvest and receiving it in regular deliveries of whatever is fresh right then work for restaurants? Several of the Boston area's innovative chefs are finding out.
Sourcing fresh, local ingredients has long been a unique challenge for restaurants in New England. The eccentricities of the growing season combine with a natural slowdown for restaurants during the summer. Add to that the trick of balancing the needs of the farmer with the needs of the chef and building a restaurant based on local, seasonal food becomes a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Fortunately, this has not stopped many of the area's smaller restaurants.
To source the ingredients for her restaurant, Nourish, in Lexington, Karen Masterson works closely with a variety of vendor partners: Tangerini's Spring Street Farm in Millis, Blue Heron Farm in Lincoln and 21st Century Foods in Jamaica Plain, among others. Maintaining those relationships, says Karen, requires not only dedication and respect on the part of both parties to make things work, it also requires willingness to meet in the middle and show your commitment to building the relationship.
For Karen, this commitment requires adjusting to the twists and turns of the always-interesting New England growing season. It also means sourcing ingredients from multiple sources, and being willing to pick up from the farm if necessary. In a typical week, Karen balances her time between working in the restaurant and picking up ingredients from several of the farms that supply Nourish-while restaurant staff works on processing deliveries from other vendors who have agreed to deliver.
It's not easy, but for Karen the effort was one that she had to make. "You have to let yourself be humbled by the work," she says, over a glass of iced tea next to one of the restaurant's window seats overlooking Lexington Center. "You have to be just as important to each other; if you can't show your commitment to [their business], the relationship can't work."
For farmers who are trying to connect with local restaurants, their challenges are multiple: They need income stability, they need a delivery model that makes sense and they need customers who are willing to work with all of the crops they grow, rather than focusing on a few key vegetables.
Traditionally, when chefs work with larger distributors they are able to call in orders at the odd hours that most chefs work (receiving orders on voicemail at 2 a.m. isn't uncommon). Quantities can also be an issue-chefs can request huge amounts of specific ingredients or they can order very small quantities. Either can present problems for the farmer.
And when it comes to locally produced meat, the problem becomes even more apparent. When Tse Wei Lim started researching local meat producers for Journeyman, his impending restaurant in Somerville's Union Square, he found that a good way to persuade producers to work with the restaurant was to offer to buy half or a quarter of an entire animal. Since much of Massachusetts' best meat comes from producers with fewer than a dozen animals, the typical restaurant's demand for a constant influx of only a few popular cuts is impossible for them to accommodate. Another challenge that Lim faces is delivery; while he and his partner are able to source produce relatively easy from local farmers markets and the garden they're building beside the restaurant, both are without cars-which makes sourcing meat from producers in Central and Western Massachusetts especially tough.
With the growing interest in local, seasonal food sweeping through New England, more chefs are starting to demand locally sourced ingredients based on the interest and demands from their customers. While some, like Karen at Nourish, will go the extra mile to accommodate several different vendors, many chefs aren't willing or able to put in that kind of effort.
Joh Kohkubo of Kitchen on Common finds that having a flexible menu, and working with a farm with a CSA, are the keys to sourcing locally. Joh's vision for his 16-seat bistro in Belmont's Cushing Square started with sourcing his homestyle, French-influenced cuisine from local farms all year round. For Joh, having a smaller place gives him the freedom to work with a couple of smaller farms, including Waltham Fields Community Farm, for most of the year's ingredients. He responds to the change in seasons and produce simply by changing the menu. While this did require some compromise on his part-Waltham Fields sorts its produce for its CSA members first and then offers Joh what's left over-Joh finds that the arrangement forces him to be more creative in the kitchen.
In August, when heirloom tomatoes are in full season, he adds a simple but gorgeous salad of heirloom tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil to the menu; in fall, when squash and kale are bountiful, starters include creamy butternut squash soup and garlicky sausage/kale soup. In fact, Joh's commitment to cooking seasonally is built right into the menu: It was designed as a blank shell, which he updates and reprints in small quantities on the office printer as the menu changes, which happens as often as every two weeks at the height of the growing season.
While Kitchen on Common's relatively low sourcing requirements makes it easier to follow a CSA-type model for their ingredients, could the "farm share" model work for larger restaurants as well? The benefits for the farmer are obvious: income stability and the ability to more effectively manage the delivery schedule. For chefs, however, the CSA model creates the same challenges that befall the typical CSA member: What do you do with a windfall of a certain ingredient? How much can you really get through in a week, and how do you preserve the rest?
If the benefits-saving money, enhanced creativity and the warm fuzzy feelings that come from supporting local farms-are found by the hobbyist chef, can they also be found by professionals? Our tentative answer is yes-in fact, it's already happening, all over Massachusetts-but not without some shifts in thinking.
Consider this: Using a CSA-type model, farmers would be able to sell shares of their harvest to restaurants for a set price at the beginning of the growing season, and in return they'd give the chefs a list of the produce they'll be growing and collaborate with the chefs to grow specific ingredients. During the growing season, they'd pack up boxes with that week's harvest and haul them either to the restaurant, or to a specified drop point where several restaurants would pick up their boxes, and happy chefs would pick them up, sort through boxes packed with fresh, local vegetables both fascinating and mundane, and use the variety to inspire their menu.
Rather than having fixed menus that change every few months, chefs would create vibrant, creative menus that captured the essence of the season, inspired by the abundance in their kitchens. As we've already started to see in some restaurants, a revival of pickles and preserves would start, offering new flavors and experiences for customers who are just beginning to understand how to celebrate the season with their food-and exciting those of us who have already started figuring this out.
If farmers and restaurants worked more closely together, planning menus and crops would become easier. Farmers could consult with chefs before planting, to find out what ingredients they'd be interested in cooking with. Chefs could, in turn, request specific vegetables or beans. The result? An increase in biodiversity, with more chefs and consumers requesting tastier heirloom varieties. Happier farmers, more creative chefs, and very happy diners who get to experience the beauty of the New England growing season in every mouthful.
Dani Nordin is the founder and principal at the zen kitchen, a strategic design studio that works with food makers and other do-good types to create engaging logos, websites and marketing materials. In her spare time, she's an avid urban homesteader, gardener and foodie who geeks out over local food issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.