For Chicago-based chef Rick Bayless, well-known for his commitment to using local ingredients in his dishes, one incident stands out in his memory for why he became passionate about supporting small, family farmers.
Many years ago a farmer had delivered to the restaurant's back door some bib lettuce that he remembers being "stunningly beautiful, vibrant, fresh" and "exuding life." After accepting the delivery, a prep cook tossed it in a corner and the farmer, Bayless remembers, approached the man and said, "I never want to see you do that to my lettuce again."
The incident, Bayless said, showed him that the husband-and-wife farmers took as much care growing lettuce as the kitchen staff did crafting dishes for diners.
His takeaway: Chefs and farmers need to communicate more with each other.
"We have a lot to teach each other," Bayless told about 160 University of Illinois Extension educators in Champaign Wednesday. Bayless was a keynote speaker at an annual conference for Extension staffers who teach horticulture, sustainable farming, nutrition and more to Illinoisans.
He told the group he views farmers not so much as "purveyors but partners."
UI Extension is all about gardening, agriculture, supporting local food, wellness and community, and that's why they invited Bayless to speak, said Greg Stack, UI Extension Horticulture Educator in northern Illinois.
"He walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to supporting locally-produced food," Stack said. "Rick is first and foremost a locavore," because his restaurants Topolobampo, Frontera and Xoco purchase much of their food from not only local, but small family farms.
When questioned about his definition of "local" food, Bayless said he was not a stickler for defining the term by distance.
What's important? That he knows the farmer.
"I want to put a face with a product," he said.
Bayless shared his story with the group, recounting his experience living, traveling and learning about cuisine in Mexico. He returned to the United States with the realization that places well known for cuisine were also well known for their agriculture. When he opened Frontera Grill and Topolobampo 25 years ago, Chicago restaurants at the time were advertising the fact that ingredients came from all over the world, not their backyard. And eating out was more about the entertainment than the actual cuisine, he said. He and his wife Deann Bayless had to seek out farmers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana to supply them.
After working with one farmer from Wisconsin, the farmer presented Bayless with fresh spinach in February. He was able to do so by growing it in an unheated hoop house, a kind of greenhouse. When Bayless wanted to order more, much more, the farmer said he needed to build more hoop houses. He needed money — money he didn't have — to do that.
Thus Frontera Farmer Foundation was born. The nonprofit foundation now provides capital grants up to $12,000 for about 10 to 12 different farms each year, about $150,000 a year. The foundation specifically seek proposals from small family farms because for them it could take years to put together $10,000 to pay for improvements to their fruit or vegetable farm, Bayless said.
Chefs from his restaurants meet during the winter with their growers to review seed catalogues and talk about growing plans. Chefs can then start to plan menus. He said farmers need to remember that what chefs want is "unusual stuff" and they want to know what will be planted ahead of time.
That means, no showing up unexpectedly at a restaurant's door with 80 pounds of zucchini in the summer.
Over the years Bayless and his staff have built a 1,000-square-foot garden in the city which produced about $30,000 worth of produce in a year. They built the beds using steel edging rather than railroad ties to save space. Swiss chard grows along the borders and there are different microclimates set up to accommodate, for example, herbs that require hot and dry environments. Squash is grown for the blossoms. And vines grow atop a pergola and above a garage, producing hundreds of pounds of grapes. Salad and microgreens grow in beds and the microgreens are brought inside during the winter where they grow under fluorescent lighting.
In recent years they added a rooftop garden above the restaurants where hot and sun-loving tomatoes and peppers grow. Those produce the "rooftop salsa" which chefs make fresh daily by visiting the rooftop and selecting the ingredients.
Bayless is the author of several cookbooks and hosts the Public Television Series "Mexico — One Plate at a Time."