Wednesday, April 18, 2012 , Updated 12:00 a.m., May 4, 2012
Chef Matt McCallister explains Chef For Farmers food event on May 6
Putting farms and farmers in front of chefs.
With the Chefs For Farmers Mixin’ It Up on the Boulevard event on the horizon at Arlington Hall at Lee Park on May 6, we sat down with Chefs for Farmers founder and Dallas chef Matt McCallister (Stephan Pyles, CampO, and the upcoming FT-33) to find out a little more about how they’re going about the process of bringing local farms into local kitchens.
Entree Dallas: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Matt. To begin, what exactly is Chefs For Farmers?
McCallister: The original idea behind Chefs for Farmers was to help facilitate putting farms and farmers in front of chefs. Because chefs’ lives are filled with working really long hours, and there aren’t a lot of us who can always take the time to go out and meet some of these people who are doing the farming. So I’ve taken some time to do that on my days off over the course of a few years. So now, with the pool of a certain few chefs and some other people working together, we amass a lot of different chefs and different farms to create a staging ground where they can interact.
And, (breaks into a smile) it’s an opportunity to hang out with my friends and have a good time.
It appears that the idea of eating locally has become more than a trend – how does it apply to how you practice your trade?
You know, it’s funny that it’s a trend when it should never have been any other way. I don’t necessarily really promote local farms that I use – you won’t see it on my menu – I just do it because it’s the right thing to do. And a lot of these people need more support; they’re small farmers, small ranches that get affected by the weather. For instance all those hail storms that came through destroyed some of the crops. It really damaged a lot of them; I can’t get strawberries from one of them because they just got destroyed.
What I try to do is create a dish around produce. Not create a dish and then buy the produce. I believe in following that style because then I’m not stuck saying, "Ugh, you don’t have this? I’m sorry, I can’t buy from you." And then having to go through a purveyor. Instead, it’s more like, "What do you have? All right, now what can we produce?" And I think that’s the attitude that goes back to the old guard, old French chefs and stuff like that. That’s how everything has been in old-world countries; Italian countryside people buy their olives from their next door neighbor, or something like that. Or maybe they’re producing it themselves. And yeah, we live in a big city so there are a lot of different things that people want, but I think there’s been a good shift in a lot of people – there are a lot of chefs who want to do the right thing.
So from a purely culinary standpoint, why go with local farms?
Take tomatoes: They aren’t picking their tomatoes green and spraying them to make them change colors quickly. It’s really important to me, and you can taste the difference – you can even eat them differently. I grew up growing tomatoes, so I don’t eat store-bought tomatoes and I don’t believe in serving tomatoes unless they’re in season. You probably won’t ever see ketchup on my menu, but if you were going to see it, it would only be in the summer. Or if I could make enough of it to can it and get me through as far as it got me. And I do that a lot too, a lot of preservation. So for me, it’s important to utilize an ingredient while it’s in season and then preserve a bunch of it to kind get me through.
Are you noticing a majority of restaurants adopting that same sort of practice?
No, I don’t think so. I would say for a lot of people, cost is still more of an issue. You’re going to pay more, dollar-wise when you’re buying from like a local farm than if you were from a huge agricultural business. In most cases, they’re pretty competitive, but in some cases you’re going to pay more because they incur a greater cost due to the rules and regulations that are put against them – the same ones are put on ConAgra - so it’s like they’re getting hit with these costs and they’re just having to charge more for their product.
In some instances, I’d say there’s a lot of people that understand and get it, but there are a lot of people, again, that still don’t care. It was probably back in my parents’ generation, or around then, when they started making really easy prepared foods and stuff like that, and it was about expansion of the industry. It was about making it all cheaper. So now we’re in the era of McDonald’s and those huge chain fast food restaurants that don’t serve very healthy stuff, and you know it’s about cost. No, not all families can afford to go out and buy a nice, organic, locally raised chicken, but they can afford to feed their family McDonald’s – then that whole obesity issue comes up. It’s like this giant, roller coaster-like cycle that keeps going and going. Everything has its place, but to me it’s important to support the fresher, healthier stuff, even if the cost is a little greater.
What’s the greatest advantage of knowing local farmers on a personal level?
I like to know where my stuff comes from; that makes me feel better about it. Especially if I’ve been to the farm and I’ve met the person and we have a relationship. I’ve always been a big relationship kind of person; I like talking face to face, or at least talking on the phone. Like hearing the other person, making sure they know what I want. It’s been fun to see these farms, and now I can call them up cause I ask for weird stuff, like what kind of herb flowers do they have? They’re like, "Do you want cilantro?" "No, I want cilantro flowers. I want it like this, I want this and I want Salsify." So they’re starting to get into producing certain things that not just I’m asking for but other people are asking for.
For more information on Chefs for Farmers and Mixin’ It Up on the Boulevard, visit their website.
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