A Dialogue with a Chef and his Farmer

Recently the residents of Cleveland Heights and University Heights celebrated local food by hosting their first Local Food Day and Edible Cleveland’s publisher Noelle Celeste invited Chef Doug Katz of fire food & drink and Provenance at the Cleveland Museum of Art to bring one of his favorite farmers, Jay Szabo of Dunham Tavern, to share a bit about their relationship as chef and farmer. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

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NOELLE CELESTE: Tell us how you started working together.

JAY SZABO: At Dunham Tavern, one of the trustees said we’ve got these community gardens that have become pretty random looking. That was about four years ago. I asked if we could we create a market garden in the space. That way Dunham Tavern would be part of this story around local food. In preparation I took the 13-week market garden class with OSU Extension, which is a great program. It’s a great overview of all of the ins and outs of growing local and that’s how it began. So we started the first year and actually managed to have pretty good production.

And all during this time I was sending emails. I photographed all the produce in the garden as I was picking it and I would send out an email to a list of about 35 people, first come first served, and Doug happened to be on my list so every week he’d see what was coming from the garden.

And we began our partnership that way. So little by little, I was supplying things for fire restaurant.

DOUG KATZ: I think when you talk about the relationship it’s something that we’ve tried to do with each farmer that we use because knowing where it comes from, you can’t just go and make a call and say “I need 20 pounds of garlic.”

NC: You work with several different farmers, right? Do you know how many farms you work with?

DK: I would say between 30 and 40, on a yearly basis.

NC: What do you look for in a farming relationship? What is it as a chef that is really essential when you’re starting to build those relationships?

DK: Honestly, it is more about the passion that I can sense from the person. We just had a tour at Dunham Farm. So all of our employees go out there and Jay talks and we have coffee and we just sort of talk like we’re doing today and that’s the type of experience I want to have. I want to be a part of the community and be someone who’s connecting with the community. So when I look in my cooler I look at the mushrooms that I have, and though I love the mushrooms, I look at those mushrooms and I think, “Well, I like the tomatoes better, because of Jay.” Or I’m showing someone around the kitchen who is going to come work at fire and I show them the grass-fed beef or I show them the bacon we make with New Creation Farm pork. So the more you develop that relationship, the more you have a bond with the food and the person.

JS: It’s certainly what inspires me to be a better farmer. When we have the staff meeting with fire, I didn’t realize the [staff’s] depth of knowledge and passion not just for the immediate industry or fire restaurant, but for food policy.

NC: When you say you look at those tomatoes and they’re Jay’s tomatoes, it’s clear that there’s value to knowing the person behind the product. It tastes different, it works different for you, you know who to hold accountable. What would you recommend to someone who isn’t a chef, so they don’t have that incentive to find their farmer and begin to build a relationship?

JS: Actually, what you’ve done with Edible Cleveland is a great entrée to connect people to what’s happening and I think that’s a great start. And there are resources on the internet with farm listings, including how to get there and what they grow.

NC: So there still might be a little hesitancy even if you know where a farm is. How do you know when to visit?

JS: That’s an interesting question. You know, if I’m at the farm and someone comes and has questions, I’m so excited about what I do, I’ll drop everything and I think most of the local farmers are that way. We all have our different quirks. We’re pioneers and we’re busy, but there’s always time. And for most of the local farmers that I know, they’re delighted when people show an interest.

DK: And a farmers market is really just a meet-and-greet. It’s the best way. If you go every week and you start buying this person’s watermelon every week for five weeks, you want to go see where it grows. And we’re so lucky to have urban farms and urban markets and I don’t think there are very many cities that have so many markets like we do.

NC: Can you talk about what you enjoy most in winter?

DK: Definitely the syrup, the honey, the cheeses, the meats and the eggs. There are great preserving things you can do to have your foods during winter. Some of the berries we freeze and you can use them in things during the winter. Herbs you can certainly get during the winter. Potatoes. Apples.

NC: You get apples in the winter?

DK: Yeah. You just store them in a root cellar. I have to say, I never believed that I could eat an apple in March, but I went to Rittman this past year and I tasted an apple and it was so amazing.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Doug, do customers in your restaurant appreciate what you’re serving them?

DK: I think they do. I think the appreciation comes in the way they love what they experience and the food that they ate. They don’t always attribute it to being local or being bought at a particular farm or that we make our own bacon, but when they tell me [how much they loved the food], I know that’s why. Because you can taste the passion in it. It starts with the ingredients and with the cooks in the kitchen and how they’re trained to prepare the ingredients, and that care transfers to the server to the bus-people to everything.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Do you communicate to the customer that items are locally grown?

DK: You know, [the restaurant’s name] “fire” is lower case and we do things in a lower-case way. We want to do things because we believe in them. We figure, if you’re eating around a table and having a conversation with people you haven’t seen in a year, you don’t necessarily want to be interrupted with all of these things. If you ask us, we tell you as much as you want to know. We will put certain farms on the menu too.

JS: You do brand your farms on the menu. I have clients of mine tell me “I was just in the restaurant and had your tomatoes.”

NC: And I think as consumers we should always be asking what’s local on your menu. Speaking of that, what’s one thing people can do that is an easy way to step into local food?

JS: I think connecting with farmers markets, as Doug mentioned, is a really good way to become aware of where your food comes from. Don’t just shop at the big-box grocery store. Take the time and make it a family event if you can because it’s a way to connect with one another, a way to connect with farmers. I mean, for me so much about food is about family and community and sharing that. For me, it’s the growing certainly, but it’s also the sharing food. And I love cooking.

DK: I also think asking questions and educating yourself is important. You know, it’s easy to sit home and not go out every day. You have to connect with your community. I think that’s talking to people and going to farmers markets, going to the restaurants, going to local stores where you feel passion. Spend your time connecting.

NC: And to close, what your favorite thing about Jay?

DK: It’s so obvious: I would say his tomatoes, but I think it’s his passion. He’s taught me so much. I go to his garden and I just can’t believe the detail. You know, we were talking early on in the spring and he had already planted our tomatoes and we saw each other somewhere and we talked about it. And I was so excited and I think he even sent me a picture. And then the next day there was a major snowstorm and all I thought to myself was, “This guy has to work so hard. He was so passionate and with all of this excitement,” and then the next day all I thought was “OK, for the next three weeks he’s going to be putting a blow dryer under there and electrocute himself and he’s going to have to redo everything he just did.” Without farmers like Jay, there’s no way we could do what we do. People think chefs work hard until you meet a farmer and see what they have to do and so I’m just so thankful.

NC: And what do you love most about Doug?

JS: I guess it’s that he cares so much about the quality of food. I know enough about the restaurant business to know that you could order most of the things you need from one source. Think of all the extra bookkeeping and the effort that it takes to source all of that material locally. The effort and the care that that requires, I admire tremendously. Also, I just love the food. And the first time I ever went to fire as a customer I was blown away by the attention to detail and freshest quality of what I was served. And Doug sets this tone in his lower-case way of loving what he does and you attract people who are attracted to that caring and that level of commitment to community and quality. So I guess I admire Doug for the amount of care that is apparent in everything that he creates.

You can make reservations at fire food & drink by visiting firefoodanddrink.com or check out Doug’s new restaurant at ProvenanceCleveland.com. And to learn more about the market garden at Dunham Tavern visit DunhamTavern.org.