I have watched with delight the growth of farmers markets, CSAs, and farm-to-table restaurants during the last decade or two. Although we have a long way to go, this is certainly the best time we’ve ever had in terms of obtaining quality veggies, raised with care and respect for the land.
Still, not all vegetables are equal, even farm-fresh ones. So many factors affect the flavor of vegetables: genetics, climate, soil conditions, and more. The vegetables, for example, from the island of Sant’Erasmo in Venice have almost mythic fame. Closer to home, from my own garden I see sometimes good results and sometimes great results. This is both frustrating and exciting. I always tell people that my life as a farmer is just as intellectually stimulating as my former life as a Latin teacher, and it’s true! My goal is the ever elusive goal of bringing to my customers vegetables of the highest freshness and quality, veggies that practically glow with health and vitality.
But it’s an elusive goal. Take beets: some of my beets at some times of year from some garden plots are so sweet, they taste just like sweet corn. A little butter and touch of salt are all they need with no other adornment. I swear I’d rather eat beets like that than the finest white truffle from Alba! But at other times of year, from other garden plots, the beets are just okay. Sugar content in vegetables can be measured by a Brix meter, and Dan Barber in his book The Third Plate tells the delightful story of how his gardener at Blue Hill at Stone Barns was delighted to find out that his carrots measured in at 16.9% sugar, compared to the store-bought carrots which measured in at a whopping 0%. Zero? So much for thinking of carrots as a commodity.
But what promotes the flavor of vegetables isn’t always clear. Yes, good soil and organic fertilization makes a huge difference. Yes, genetics make a huge difference. But weather and other unidentified but real factors make a huge difference too. Why vegetables from St. Erasmo are so remarkable is partly a mystery.
And so, as much as I applaud the local foods movement, there is a deeper and further step to be taken. As a chef, if I really want the best ingredients possible, I need to find a way to produce them myself, to produce exactly the types of vegetables I want to cook with. I need to recognize that good cooking happens as much in the field as in the kitchen, just like good wine is as much a product of the vineyard as the cellar. Just as the best winemakers are always producers of the finest fruit, so I believe that the best chefs need to become farmers and gardeners and producers of the finest produce. We need to take the next step beyond simply promoting local produce, and move on to promoting the most flavorful produce, and these two things are not necessarily inseparable. It’s a Herculean and at times Sisyphean task, but one I’m proud to be devoted to.