The 1980s birthed the first generation of celebrity chefs whose rock star status propelled superior-quality, homegrown, fresh ingredients into the spotlight. And, as luck would have it, The Chef’s Garden was waiting in the wings, poised to step into a crucial supporting role.
Author Andrew Friedman revisited that culinary flashpoint at the Culinary Vegetable Institute’s “Totally ‘80s” lecture series during a panel discussion and dinner on June 22 alongside two renowned guest chefs, Claudia Fleming and David Waltuck.
Friedman’s 2018 book, Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits, and Wanderers Created a New American Profession, explores the chefs, trends and emergence of domestically-grown ingredients during the ‘80s.
“The focus of the book is the chef’s profession, but one of the things that overlaps the story is the evolution of the sourcing network in the U.S.,” Friedman said.
“Chefs who worked in France and in London will tell you they had purveyors coming to their back kitchen door with stuff, telling them what was amazing today,” Friedman said. “It might be a rabbit, it might be produce that just popped. That network didn’t exist in this country at all.”
So, once they arrived in America, chefs steeped in European culture were sorely disappointed. “All of these people tell stories about going to the supermarket and seeing vegetables wrapped in plastic,” Friedman said. “Anyone from Europe found that horrifying.”
Determined chefs refused to settle for less than the best, and took matters into their own hands. “Chefs started going to great lengths to source this stuff themselves, phoning around the country to find things,” Friedman said.
French Chef Jean-louis Palladin was one of the chefs who took it upon himself to search out satisfactory fresh ingredients. “He would encourage American farms to grow certain varieties that he needed,” Friedman explained.
A fledgling farm called The Chef’s Garden became one of Palladin’s early purveyors.
“He was looking for those fresh ingredients and, quite frankly, he took us under his wing,” said Farmer Lee Jones. “He trusted in us, but he also encouraged us and, in a lot of ways, he really kicked our butts and said ‘get with the program ─ grow it without chemicals, grow it for the flavor, grow it for the integrity of the product.’”
Jones said the decade’s limited resources and selection in the U.S. positioned The Chef’s Garden for a golden opportunity.
“We were at the right place at the right time to be able to take advantage of recognizing those chefs’ needs,” he said. “Jean-louis Palladin recognized our commitment, our passion and our hunger to somehow find a way to survive in agriculture. And he knew that we were listening and that we meant business and that we were going to do everything we could to fulfill his needs.”
Chef David Waltuck said that, during his 30 years at his former New York restaurant Chanterelle, he sourced vegetables from the Hunts Point Cooperative Market in the South Bronx ─ one of the largest food distribution facilities in the world.
“I worked for many years with a very small vegetable purveyor who purchased stuff at the vegetable market at Hunts Point,” he said. “I couldn’t get haricot verts in New York, but they were bringing in haricot verts from France or Senegal. And they were beautiful, but that’s several steps removed from something that’s just been pulled from the ground.”
“Things that we totally take for granted at this point were extremely difficult if not totally impossible to obtain, even fresh herbs,” Chef David continued. “On a given day I knew I could get parsley, chives or thyme. But tarragon or chervil? And then baby vegetables and microgreens? There were no such things.”
Pastry Chef Claudia Fleming said that, early on in her career at New York’s Jams restaurant, ingredients were mostly flown in from the West Coast for the eatery’s California cuisine.”
“At Jams, we got vegetables FedEx’d to us from California every day,” Chef Claudia said. “There was nothing like it on the East Coast.”
She said restaurateur and Jams owner Jonathan Waxman did his best to change the situation.
“Slowly but surely Jonathan developed relationships with East Coast farmers,” she said. “He was able to communicate with farmers on the East Coast what it was that he was doing, and farmers bought into it, hook, line and sinker.”
“So I found myself in the middle of what felt like a revolution and it was incredible, it was really exciting,” she continued. “I saw things that I had never seen before, things that are here now at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. The vegetables were so beautiful ─ it was like jewelry. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Thirty-five years ago, baby patty pan squash were a novelty.”
Chef Claudia said the emergence of “hyper-local” produce quickly found its way into her pastries, as evidenced in her Totally ‘80’s dessert, a refined strawberry rhubarb shortcake filled with anise hyssop cream.
“Local and seasonal elevated the representation of what we thought of as simple American desserts,” she said. “So that was my trajectory and I am still doing that.”
The trend toward local and seasonal fresh ingredients in the U.S. is still going strong, according to author Friedman. And the network for accessing superior farm-fresh produce is no longer a problem. Much of that, he said, circles back to the 1980s’ surge of celebrity chefs and televised food programming.
“I think chefs talking about how important ingredients are is why we see farmers markets doing better than they ever have ─ I think that is where that demand comes from,” he said. “It comes from chefs starting 30 years ago on TV. You see them making these pilgrimages. You see them talking about it. You see someone bringing them a sample and them swooning over it. That has trickled down to the home kitchens. I think the ripple effect of this isn’t just in restaurants. I think it is across American life.”