In last Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Russ Parsons has an interesting story about a recent evolution at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. The Wednesday market has long been a place for chefs to meet, to pick up the best produce in Los Angeles, and to be inspired by the seasons. Lately, though, chefs have seen produce trucked away by big companies to be shipped to far away restaurants. Parson writes:
Though no hard figures are kept, some growers say that as much as half of what they sell at the market is bought by produce companies.
As a result, what had long been a kind of informal meeting place for many of Southern California's foodies and chefs is no longer quite so clubby. What chefs once regarded as a combination of culinary laboratory and kaffeeklatsch -- a place to find new ingredients and ideas and swap gossip, sometimes seemingly in equal proportions -- is more and more a place for big business.
"It used to be that everyone thought how great it was to be out there picking things for ourselves; it was so exciting," said Matt Molina of the white-hot Mozza restaurants, co-owned by star chefs Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton. "Then all of a sudden it began to become a business, a big-money business. Now farmers are sometimes catering to the big people, so local restaurants are sometimes getting left behind.
The chefs could get the same produce if they called in advance, but some think that a Tuesday afternoon phone call might kill a Wednesday morning idea that could lead to a magnificent new dish for the restaurant. The chefs say that coming across a new ingredient or combination of ingredients can spark unexpected preparations.
For farmers, this evolution is a huge benefit: having a big produce company place an advance order means a guaranteed sale, as opposed to the perpetual gamble of bringing highly perishable vegetables to a market where they might not catch anyone's attention and be turned into compost or animal feed back on the farm.
It seems counterintuitive for big produce companies to be buying at the farmers market, but I only see it a convenient place for the pick up, certainly easier than having the farmer struggle through the legendary L.A. traffic to a warehouse across the city.
Parsons writes that the farmers market is trying to mediate the conflict between the chefs and wholesalers. I hope they can figure something out because a lot of culinary innovation has occurred at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, innovation that will slow if the chefs stay away from the market.