Maine Chefs

Summer 2008

Maine Chefs
Shawn Wilcox (left), executive sous-chef with the University of Maine Black Bear Dining; Rich Hanson, chef and owner (with his wife, Cary) of Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro in Ellsworth; and Cheryl Wixson, a chef who runs the nonprofit Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen and who is an organic marketing consultant for MOFGA. English photo.

Three chefs discussed marketing possibilities for Maine organic growers at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in January. They included Shawn Wilcox, executive sous-chef with the University of Maine Black Bear Dining; Rich Hanson, chef and owner (with his wife, Cary) of Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro in Ellsworth; and Cheryl Wixson, a chef who runs the nonprofit Cheryl Wixson’s Kitchen and who is an organic marketing consultant for MOFGA. Melissa White Pillsbury, MOFGA’s organic marketing coordinator, moderated the session.

Be Flexible

Wixson, an agricultural engineer with graduate training in food and nutrition, owned a 32-seat restaurant several years ago that served organic, Maine produce. “I was a little bit ahead of my time,” said Wixson, because the market then “wasn’t ready to support the type of work that I did.” She left the restaurant, raised three children and became a food writer. For the past year and a half, she’s been working with MOFGA, trying to place more local, organic foods into Maine markets.

Wixson suggested that chefs be flexible. If mesclun is not available, look for spinach or cabbage. “Cabbage makes a great salad at this time of year [winter]” – although Wixson was able to find fresh, greenhouse-grown greens from Half Moon Gardens in Thorndike in early January.

Wixson has been moving her kitchen at home and MOFGA’s kitchen to local, seasonal, organic kitchens – except for chocolate, coffee, olive oil and a few nuts. This effort introduced her to some new ingredients. When celery is no longer available in January, for instance, she has been working with celery root, stored in her root cellar at home. Some of the old Maine and New England cookbooks have great recipes for such crops, she said. “Jean Ann Pollard’s book [The Simply Grande Gardening Cookbook] – I love this one. I’ll see how that [ingredient] was part of the local, Maine cuisine, and I incorporate that into the work that I do.”

“And when I run out of cabbage …” Wixson began;

“Sauerkraut,” said Hanson.

Local and International

Hanson has been a chef for over 20 years, working in Boston and New York before returning to his wife’s home state of Maine. “In the city, you get the impression that organic produce comes off of a truck,” he said. “I came up here and learned differently. I was fortunate enough to find my way into Blue Hill, which is in the heart of a really great network of small, organic farmers. I worked for a number of years at Jonathan’s in Blue Hill.” Seven years ago, he opened his 60-seat restaurant. “Our first commitment was to use as much local food as possible. We also started our own farm about two years ago,” in Bucksport. The Cleonice motto is “Local ingredients, international flavor.” Cleonice also caters events, serving 300, for example, at one event last year.

Hanson said that the first step a restaurant needs to take in working with farmers is developing a relationship, finding out what the delivery times are, and so on. “I had a farmer for years who persisted in calling me at 7:30 at night on Saturday for my order. It’s the wrong time! You have to realize that we work different hours; that we need to do our business during regular business hours, not during the busiest part of our work week.”

NorthCenter, an institutional food distributor, is very predictable, delivering at specific times three days a week. With individual farmers, however, Hanson may get shell beans from one, cucumbers from another, “so I have to work with them to figure out what the best time is to call me, the best time for delivery… Consistency is the primary thing.”

Hanson noted that the Crown O’ Maine represents several farmers who wouldn’t be able to market themselves individually. “Some kind of consortium like that for other parts of the state would be beneficial, particularly for large accounts, where one farmer is not going to produce 80 bushels of mesclun, but 15 might.” He suggested that some public or private money might be necessary to help start such enterprises.

Rob Johanson of Goranson Farm in Dresden, Maine, who attended the session, noted that Farm Fresh Produce is another Maine distributor of Maine foods – mostly in the southern part of the state.

Hanson gets fresh greens into January from Four Season Farm, then has a lull for about a month before the crop gets growing again. “Any local restaurant would love to buy that kind of stuff. It also sells well in co-ops. That’s something that does have a lot of initial investment, but on a small scale, you’re not going to have any waste. That’s something that you can definitely find a market for.”

Most of the farmers Hanson has met sell a few ways – through farmers’ markets, CSAs, to restaurants and local stores, for example. To work with restaurants, try growing different things, he said. “A lot of the farmers here have the seven or eight things that they like to grow primarily. But I need to put different things on the plate to make it interesting to my customers. And customers are a lot more educated now through food magazines and the food channel. Things that sell have buzzwords now, like heirloom. Anything heirloom that you can sell, such as Romanesco broccoli or one of the 4,000 different kinds of tomatoes that are available now…those have value over a hybrid variety. You can sell a ‘Brandywine’ for more than you can sell a ‘Big Boy.’ A lot of the reasons for growing a hybrid – to ship it somewhere – are not as important if you’re going to be selling to a specific person. That’s how you can get $4 or $5 a pound for your tomatoes instead of $2 a pound.”

One thing restaurants can provide in winter, Hanson continued, are traditional Maine comfort foods made with dried beans or winter squash, for example. Sometime in March, farmers are finished with most of their storage crops, and then a one-month gap occurs when little is available.

Hanson added that farmers can inform home chefs by bringing a chef to the farm stand to demonstrate making a dish. The restaurant gets advertising, and the farmer gets customers who now know how to use celeriac or salsify.

Working with seasonal restaurants can be difficult, said Hanson, because chefs may not come on until May, and they may stay for only two or three summers; selling to year-round restaurants can be easier. He suggested that farmers might be able to get rid of some excess produce in August and September at Mom and Pop stores that use sliced tomatoes on Italian subs. Even at the height of Maine’s tomato season, “these people are still buying bushels of cardboard tomatoes” from large distributors.

Greening UMaine

Wilcox started at UMaine Orono just last year but is already seeing more local and organic foods on campus, since UMaine’s president introduced a campus-wide green initiative. Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative delivers produce to UMaine once a week, and the University can also purchase from its own Rogers Farm, but the primary produce supplier for its 3,500 meals three times a day is NorthCenter, which updates UMaine weekly regarding which local farmers supplied food.

The University is opening a new, fourth dining facility at Wells Commons and is introducing new menus, pushing local, organic, sustainable foods on a few of them. “The students are a lot more informed about food choices, a lot more conscious about what they’re putting in their mouths,” said Wilcox. One space at Wells will be able to cater to up to 400 people.

NorthCenter delivers some 80 cases of lettuce three or four times a week to UMaine. “It’s hard to deal with one person [i.e., an individual farmer], especially when we’re dealing with such a large volume,” said Wilcox, “but we’re getting there. Our executive chef, Glenn Taylor, is out there pounding the streets, looking to find one person who can bring everyone together and produce enough quantity for us to deal with.”

Sometimes UMaine caters to small groups of five or 20 or so people, but often these events are too spontaneous for the chefs to source local foods. The chefs realize that they need to educate their clients to give them more lead time so that they can source more local foods.

Five from Maine

White Pillsbury said that MOFGA has listed five ingredients from Maine that should be available year-round: blueberries, apples, milk, eggs and potatoes. “What would it take for the three of you to be able to source these five products from Maine year-round?” she asked the panelists.

Wixson and Hanson already do. “All those things are available from Crown O’ Maine right now,” said Hanson. “We have eggs from our own farm [he uses 15 dozen a week], milk from a neighboring farm.”

Wilcox said that UMaine uses Maine potatoes. He wasn’t sure about apples and milk, noting that they serve milk in half-pint containers to students, so suppliers have to be able to provide that. They have wild Maine blueberries in storage. The University gets liquid eggs, since cracking thousands of eggs is so time consuming. “I think we’re going back to cage-free liquid eggs,” said Wilcox – something the University tried before but dropped for lack of consistent quantity. Sysco (UMaine’s supplier) sources eggs from New England.

White Pillsbury asked chefs what additional foods they’d like to get from Maine. Hanson said more fresh greens; other than that, he’s got plenty of dried beans, garlic and other Maine crops. “At the end of summer we make gallons and gallons of tomato sauce and pesto and freeze it. That’s another aspect of the four-season diet in Maine. One of the most important things is preserving, canning summer stuff so that you can make it through the winter. Sauerkraut – true fermented sauerkraut – is one of the main ways people got vitamin C in the winter. We use a lot of Maine cheese – chevre, particularly. I’d like to see more people aging cheeses, making calves-milk mozzarella, things like that. There are abundant things you can have in the winter here. It’s just getting people to understand that winter is stew, summer is grill.”

Wilcox said that for catering special functions, the University uses State of Maine cheese from Rockport. Still, he’d like to see more cheeses, including hard cheeses. “I like to have a cheese platter at every function that we do, and certainly something from the state of Maine should be out there. It’s something we can make presentable with fresh, artisan breads.”

Hanson added that organic foods can be more expensive, but he saves by buying in bulk or buying goods such as meats in their raw or primal form and breaking them down himself, using various parts in different ways. With produce, he buys as much at once as he can afford and stores it, thus getting a good price.

“It’s a bitter irony that I can get wholesale, peeled garlic from China for $3.50 a pound, whereas people around here grow great garlic, but it’s hard for them to sell it to me for less than $8 or $9 a pound, and that’s not peeled. So for a half teaspoon of garlic, that’s a big price difference. People don’t realize that half the price of an entrée can be in that half teaspoon of garlic. I’m still trying to resist buying that garlic from China.”

 – Jean English

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