Local Alliances: Farmers and chefs on why relationships matter

The flavor of our food starts at the farm. Nobody realizes this more than chefs.

Relationships between local producers and culinary pros spring up by way of chance meetings, word of mouth and good old-fashioned door knocking. Eliminating the middleman has proverbial benefits from a business perspective, though in the kitchens of the ambitious, shopping locally isn’t just about shopping. And it’s far more than a trend.

Chad Rensing | Rensing Hog Farm

Amy Zupanci | Fond

Don’t get them started.

“Tell her I’ll see her if she places an order.”
“Tell him I spend enough.”

Hog farmer Chad Rensing and chef Amy Zupanci never argue, they banter – at times even through third parties.

“I found him at the Goshen Market,” said Zupanci, owner of the resolutely fresh and local Fond in Edwardsville. “I saw this meat guy, and that was very unusual here. I walked right up to him and asked if he could sell to restaurants.”

A year later, Rensing Hog Farm in New Douglas, Ill., supplies Fond with all its beef and pork. Zupanci goes proverbially whole hog, alternately ordering heads, bellies, loins, halves – the affable chef has swung her cleaver at it all.

“I make everything out of pork. The price is awesome,” Zupanci said.

“Maybe you should give me a raise,” Rensing replied.

Maybe she should. Zupanci and Rensing consult weekly over creating better-tasting meat through the animals’ diets and breeding. Next on the experiment table: probiotics.

“Organic and hormone-free doesn’t matter to me as much as local and sustainable,” Zupanci said. “I like knowing how things are done on the farms and being able to communicate with my suppliers. It’s kind of fun for Chad and I to see how the pigs turn out.”

“It’s an adventure,” Rensing said.

Occasionally, yes, they agree – but only occasionally.

Thom Zoog | Portabella Restaurant

Brett Palmier | Biver Farms

Brett Palmier recognizes most chefs at the farmers’ markets by their tattoos. Thom Zoog he knows by name.

The two men met (and still meet) in Clayton, where Zoog runs Portabella Restaurant and where, for more than a decade, Palmier has sold organically grown produce from Biver Farms in Edwardsville. The original Clayton Farmers’ Market opened – luxury of luxuries – just paces away from Zoog’s doorstep.

“I’d go over and tell Brett, ‘I’ll take whatever you have left over,’” Zoog said. At day’s end, Palmier delivered a box of miscellany, and on the bar, as a kind of tip, always waited a luminous beer. A palship was born.

The intensely conscientious Palmier bowed out of restaurant retail in heavy volume years ago. “Everyone wanted a consistent size and quantity, and I’d have to fit deliveries into small windows that changed from day to day,” he said. This is not to say Palmier shirks work. Hardly. It’s just that fickle temperatures, bullying winds, greedy diseases, 40-some odd crops and contractual obligations to a full roster of community supported agriculture subscribers keep him busy enough.

Nearly 15 years after opening Portabella, Zoog still patronizes Palmier in person. And he’s as easygoing as ever. “I’ll take whatever he’s got going on that day – whatever he’s got coming up out of the ground,” he said. A wish for freshness motivates the seasonal dishes studding Zoog’s menu, absolutely. He also shops local partially for farmers’ sake. “I want people like Brett to be able to keep farming in our area,” he said. “Big commercial farms don’t grow as much variety.”

Unsurprisingly enough, Palmier’s stand at the Clayton Farmers’ Market, which now lies a stretch farther from Portabella than it did initially, often sees long lines and sellouts. Zoog’s been known to shortcut past the crowd and overturn a couple of Palmier’s backup baskets into his shopping bags. Being on a first-name basis has its privileges.

Gerard Craft | Niche Restaurant

Joanna Duley | Claverach Farm and Vineyards

Some wars break out over beautiful women. Others ignite over ravishing salad mix.

“It’s a war between Kevin [Nashan of Sidney Street Cafe] and me,” said Gerard Craft, whose work at Benton Park’s Niche Restaurant made him a finalist for an impressive James Beard award this year. “He’ll call and say, ‘Hey, man, I just got 20 pounds of the salad greens. And I’ll be, like, ‘What? She said she didn’t have any.’”

Joanna Duley laughed serenely. She’d evidently heard these murmurs before.

“Gerard wishes I would grow every vegetable,” said the partner at Claverach Farm and Vineyards in the environs of Eureka, Mo. True that. When Craft talks about Claverach’s produce, he chooses his words carefully: pristine, intricate, flawless.

Such beauty, Duley will tell you, is labor. “We do a lot of sorting and sizing. [My partner Sam Hilmer] and I eat the funny-looking ones,” she said. Also note that Duley spends many an hour washing vegetables by hand – because they’re worth it.

Claverach produce doesn’t just allure Craft with its looks. “You can eat the salad greens without dressing,” he said. “Joanna and Sam know how food is supposed to taste.”

Impeccable flavor requires impeccable soil. At Claverach Farm, the soil is naturally high in calcium and is amended with compost and minerals. Soon Craft will be trekking to Duley’s neck of the woods. “Using local growers and food producers is something we’ve done from the beginning, but this year we’re really attacking it head-on,” he said. “Visiting the farms gives you a sense of security. You know where the food’s coming from and you see what’s going on – right or wrong.”

Duley has no need to worry. Craft is hooked. Among the lookers that parade across the plates at Niche are baby fennel, Brussels sprouts and Japanese turnips. He also works his magic with Claverach microgreens as well as its graceful sunflower, radish and pea shoots – that is, when he can get his hands on them.

“Gerard is savvy enough to come regularly snooping at the farmers’ markets. Usually, he’ll be first in line,” Duley said. Then she looked at Craft and added, “You probably don’t want all the other chefs to know your secret.”

Let’s just hope it never comes to fisticuffs.

Kevin Nashan | Sidney Street Cafe

David Hillebrand | Prairie Grass Farms

Ultrapractical Kevin Nashan isn’t given to utopian musings, and yet he has a dream.
“The more this town realizes the need for involving seasonality, the better local dining is going to be as a whole. We’re going to make St. Louis a spot – like New Orleans, Chicago, New York and San Francisco – that people know for its good food and its good farms,” said Nashan, chef and owner of Benton Park’s Sidney Street Cafe.
Culinary and civic ambition has led Nashan to purveyors like David Hillebrand, a third-generation sheep farmer and patient workhorse. (“You’re looking at the help,” Hillebrand said.) Nashan first visited Hillebrand’s Prairie Grass Farms, a fabled beauty near New Florence, Mo., almost seven years ago.
“I want to know everything about his operation, and I’m giving the same information to my customers,” said Nashan, who generally orders at least one whole lamb a week. Prairie Grass’ Dorper lambs, a South African breed, weigh between 90 and 110 pounds and as such are smaller than other commercial lambs, which hit the market at around 150 pounds.

“They’re like miniature cows,” said Hillebrand, describing lambs from large producers. He’s chosen to tamper less with genetics. Instead of corn and generic feed, his flocks eat grass (barring droughts) along with region-specific mineral supplements. “They don’t need a Holiday Inn, but they deserve a good life,” Hillebrand said.

For Nashan, buying local represents more than a philosophical ideal – it’s also a matter of taste. “A lot of times when you buy a mass-produced lamb, you’ll find it’s almost spongy – not full and marbled,” he said. The meat he receives from Hillebrand is sweet and bright red with firm texture, and this quality is no coincidence. “I get real worried about flavor as the lambs get a little older,” Hillebrand said. “Are they chewier? Are they stronger? It takes a while to get consistency in breeding.”

When lamb prices hit a premium last month on the commodity market, it was business as usual between Hillebrand and Nashan. In fact, in 10 years, Hillebrand has upped his rates just once. Solid relationships hold more value than a quick buck – and well, that’s pretty dreamy. 

Mick Dickus | Hannahway Farms

Joshua Galliano | Monarch Restaurant

Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. Actually, hold that thought. The story about Joshua Galliano and Mick Dickus starts with pumpkins.

There he was: the lionized farmer Galliano first heard about after taking over at Monarch Restaurant in Maplewood last September. Really, Dickus would best be described as a woodsman if it weren’t for more than a hundred varieties of heirloom tomatoes he grows at Hannahway Farms in St. Charles County – but we’ll get to that.

There they were: dozens of Howden and Connecticut Field pumpkins tumbling out of a minivan. Was Galliano interested? Yes – and the omnivorous chef’s answer has subsequently been yes to honey, persimmons, huckleberries, nettle, elderberries, wild spinach, morels and whatever other delicacies that Dickus might trot out.

“I’ll figure out some way to use it,” said Galliano, whose commitments in the kitchen don’t always allow him to forage on his own.

In his former life, Dickus worked construction, and in a future one he may very well become a chef. His pantry brims with all kinds of homemade comforts and curios: hard cider, pumpkin butter, tomato wine. Dickus and Galliano are kindred explorers in the world of flavors, and it deepens their connection beyond that of vendor and customer.

“I’m not just selling things to him. It’s hard for me to put it into words,” said Dickus, whose head is a sanctuary for many mystical notions. With the growing season on its way, he and Galliano are poised to live happily ever after.

The end.

Oh, wait – the tomatoes. Dickus already cultivates 110 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and plans to add 22 new ones this year. He can’t stop. And if ever tried, Galliano wouldn’t let him.

Ron Benne | Benne’s Best Meat

Anthony Devoti | Five, Newstead Tower Public House

He couldn’t resist.

“This wasn’t your brother, was it?” Ron Benne asked staffers as he circulated through Five in The Grove with a pig’s head. Wiry, witty Benne usually makes Five the last stop on his bimonthly delivery route so that he can kick back over a Jack and Coke with Anthony Devoti.

The young, effervescent chef runs a tight ship of local, seasonal fare both at Five and its sister restaurant down the street, Newstead Tower Public House. Burgers at the latter, for example, only come with tomatoes a few months out of the year. Pork, on the other hand, is a steady commodity in the kitchen – and nose-to-tail devotee and in-house charcutier Devoti shows Benne’s pigs full appreciation. Chicken and eggs, likewise sourced from Benne’s Weldon Spring farm, receive their culinary due as well.

“I was introduced to the idea of using local products when I was in New York. I started working with real farmers and seeing where things came from,” Devoti said.

“I’m not real,” interjected Benne, tilting his head and grinning sideways.

Devoti smiled and continued talking with his idiosyncratically staccato diction. “I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen the chickens when they’re little yellow fur balls. A couple of times, I’ve literally seen the hogs we’re going to get roaming around.” Talk about real.

With Benne so close by, Devoti is able to work with meat just two days fresh from the processing plant. The benefits on Benne’s end include predictable income and one-stop vending. “If I go hunting for people, I have to make too many concessions about my price. If Anthony can take the whole animal, that works for me,” Benne said.

How often does the farmer sit down to dine? “As little as possible. It’s very expensive,” gibed Benne, who asked Devoti to cater his son’s wedding and who recently celebrated his own wedding anniversary at Five.

“The pork dishes are very expensive,” Devoti volleyed.

Make no mistake: In between jokes, Benne takes his work very seriously. “We had a run of four pigs that were 210 [pounds] on the money, and the last one was 198,” Devoti said. “That’s really perfect. Sometimes when they get smaller than that, the loins really shrink. You wouldn’t think it makes that big of a difference, but it does. Plus I know that Ron’s going to take care of his hogs and chickens. And when he drops his stuff off here, he knows we’ll take care of it too.”

Photo assistant: Geoff Cardin. Makeup artist: Kathy J. Ferrara. Shot on location at the former Dixie Cream Donut Flour Factory in St. Louis. Special thanks to building owners Katherine and Ramona Lochhead of Lochhead Vanilla Co.