Every Tuesday and Friday morning, Jim and Karen Lucas pull their TLC Farm’s white Ford transit van into the parking lot of the Blue Door Café & Bakery, where owner Michael Bruno eagerly awaits the delivery of their grain-fed, free-range eggs.
The farmer-to-artisan baker transaction has been a ritual for nearly three years. The Wadsworth farm’s eggs are a key ingredient that binds the quality of the French-inspired café’s homemade breakfast and lunch dishes, such as the Croissant Madame. The café’s version of the traditional French bistro sandwich called Croque Monsieur features the usual croissant with Dijon mustard, Leoncini ham, cave-aged imported gruyere, and béchamel—but adds a perfectly fried egg.
“When I crack one of Jim’s eggs next to an egg from a local farm where they’re not free range, his yolks are orange, not pale,” said Bruno. “The whites are firm, not runny, so they taste richer.”
A similar exchange occurs when Bruno acquires turkey. He heads to nearby Brunty Farms in Bath Township where, if owners Jeff Brunty and Melanie Schenk are absent, an outdoor refrigerator stocked with meat and a nearby payment box are at his disposal.
“They work on the honor system,” said Bruno. “Local sourcing is a key part of what I do here. I don’t trust the big distributor with the organic meat or produce because, frankly, I don’t know where it comes from and how it’s raised. I need to know and trust my producers if I want quality.”
Across Northeast Ohio, these producer-food artisan relationships are nourishing the local food community. Each alliance, each ingredient, inspires the unique breakfast dishes that are our most important daily sustenance.
Parker Bosley, godfather of Cleveland’s local food movement, says fostering chef-farmer relationships not only drives consistent quality, but also empowers the culinary creativity that discerning eaters crave.
“You have more control as a chef when you have a close relationship with your farmers,” said Bosley, former owner of Parker’s New American Bistro in Cleveland and consultant to local foods provider Fresh Fork Market. “You can say, ‘Would you consider this kind of chicken that produces a higher protein?’ or ‘Could you get me a different kind of tomato?’ You have to build that relationship before the farmer sees the value of your influence.”
Those connections emerge in the whimsy of Blue Door’s weekly rotating specials menu, which Bruno doesn’t plan until each Sunday night.
“We’re flexible. If Jim and Karen call offering some Cornish game hens, that could be a dish the upcoming week,” said Bruno. A yield of Velvet View Yogurt through Fresh Fork Market may find its way into pancakes as a substitute for buttermilk.
“Their yogurt has no stabilizers, so it works really well in the batter because it’s so rich and creamy,” he explained.
Bruno—a former Marine infantry officer turned French-style trained baker—predicated his craft on relationships. Prior to opening his café, he contacted dozens of influential pastry chefs and institutes throughout the United States, sifting their expertise into his own meticulous sourcing and baking approach.
“After I was stationed in Washington, D.C, my wife and I traveled all over the U.S. in search of a proper European café, and we never found it,” he said. So they targeted his mother-in-law’s Golden Goose restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls for a reincarnation.
Bruno’s scratch bread and pastries are the bread and butter of his business. On Saturdays, Bruno sells about 400 croissants, scones and other pastry and more than 40 loaves of challah, brioche and sourdough. Even a frigid morning couldn’t keep the café from challenging its maximum occupancy restrictions.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
About 60 miles to the northwest, Joe Waltzer steers the Black River Café in a similar direction.
After graduating with an environmental studies degree from Oberlin College in 1998, he launched the restaurant as a way of connecting the public with local, sustainably raised foods.
“I became a vegetarian in college after learning about industrial farming and the use of antibiotics in meat,” said Waltzer. “I had no real restaurant experience but wanted to open a business that would promote sustainable, locally sourced food. The fewer miles our food travels, the better for our environment.”
Waltzer has since cobbled together a network of at least 12 local producers, including On The Rise Bakery in Cleveland Heights, Kent-based Lucky Penny Creamery, and Hartzler Family Dairy in Wooster. A Mennonite-Amish co-op handles bimonthly deliveries of between 18 and 24 cases of brown eggs from roaming plant-fed chickens on Holistic Acres in Ashland.
“I talk directly to the farmer who is responsible for my eggs, and that’s how it should be,” said Waltzer.
He credits the eggs’ freshness for the fluffy cloud of Hollandaise sauce that perches above two poached eggs, local Canadian bacon, and an English muffin on his popular Eggs Benedict.
He scans his 60-seat diner on a brisk late Saturday morning and is hard-pressed to find a vacant seat for the 15 or so patrons waiting at the door.
“Our customers have been really supportive,” he said.
HARDLY JUST MEAT AND POTATOES
While new menu twists and turns are often a prerequisite to tempting today’s adventuresome foodies, Big Al’s Diner on Larchmere treats its substantial corned beef hash with the respect of tradition.
Co-owner Cheryl Windsor plucked the recipe from her childhood, when her father regularly made for breakfast. It has remained intact during its two-decade tenure on the diner’s menu, said general manager Amy Blatnica.
The corned beef features about six ounces of fresh, thinly chipped corned beef, cubed potatoes, green peppers (a departure from the usual onion or carrot accompaniment), and two eggs cooked to order. Even Michael Symon extolled the dish on the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
Vienna Distributing Co. in Cleveland plays a leading role in the meal’s claim to fame. “Vienna’s is the only place we’ve ever gotten our corned beef,” she explained. “They’re known for supplying some of the best and corned beef around.”