It’s one thing to shop at farmers’ markets as a regular customer, and another to shop as a chef. Occasionally I see chefs at markets. They might be recognizable as a celebrity or from the tell-tale white jacket. I pay close attention to which stalls they approach and which they bypass. I take note of what they purchase and how they make their selections. I shamelessly eavesdrop to learn as much as I can.
Several times I’ve enjoyed the privilege of tagging along as a chef shops at a market (always arranged by prior agreement). We meet at an ungodly early hour, since they prefer to complete their shopping before the market opens to the general trade. I’ve shadowed chefs at Marché Président Wilson in Paris, in Arles, at Les Halles in Avignon, the truffle market in Richerenches, and various markets in Barcelona, Boston, and New York. Chefs are extremely pressed for time. They make quick decisions and don’t dawdle. They might exchange a friendly hello with sellers, but they rarely engage in lengthy conversation. Chefs tend to be very serious and focused when they shop. Their minds are racing with ideas for extra pizazz of flavor, color, and texture. If watching aerially, you’d see them making wild but efficient zig-zags through the aisles rather than an orderly circuit from one stand to the next.
I once made the rounds of the Arles market with Michelin-starred Chef Jean-Luc Rabanel. He saves time by heading straight to the farmer and fishmonger stands, bypassing other stalls. He became so intrigued by some unusual tomato seedlings that he phoned someone on his staff to come quickly and obtain a flat of them for his organic garden.
If a chef is a familiar presence at a market, stall keepers eagerly point out items that are especially fresh or unusual. When I accompanied Chef Cédric Brun on his weekly Saturday rounds of the indoor market Les Halles in Avignon, vendors know his tastes well enough to direct his attention to certain meats and cheeses that pique his interest. Crowds tend to part as a chef shops. As soon as the chef finishes, other customers make a mad dash to buy the same.
As much as they might want to, many chefs feel that they cannot spare the time to go to a market. Instead, they do all their ordering online or via phone and receive deliveries from wholesale suppliers or local farmers. (This Boston Globe magazine features some farmers who supply top chefs in the area, along with favorite summer recipes.) I’ve spotted Chef Tyler Kinnett of the Harvest restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as he and others from his team ducked out of the kitchen to make a quick pass through the farmers’ market at the nearby Charles Plaza. They purchased a couple items to accent dishes on the menu, but he explained to me that it was primarily a chance to get inspired by the season’s fresh bounty.
Here are 7 pointers that I’ve drawn from the experience of watching and talking with chefs as they shop:
- Arrive early. The best quality produce goes fast. So too do the best parking spaces.
- Hang loose with the shopping list. Permit yourself flexibility to look around and to be enticed by items that aren’t on the list. Risk trying new and unfamiliar items.
- Make a beeline to your favorite vendors. Buy what you can from them, and then fill in with items from other vendors.
- Learn from the vendors. Ask what’s freshest. Most seasonal? How to use and how to store? When asked, vendors are generally very willing to offer recommendations. Other shoppers might pipe in with advice too. A lot can be learned during a transaction.
- Relax into the experience. Let yourself be carried away by the colors, smells, sounds, and flavors. Accept samples when they’re offered, and don’t feel obligated to buy anything. Think of market shopping not as a race against the clock (which it is for the professional chefs) or as a chore to be finished as quickly as possible, but instead as a chance to learn and have fun.
- Seek out the local produce. You don’t need fancy tricks to coax flavor out of fresh, seasonal produce. Simple preparations let the flavors shine. Shop and eat according to the seasons.
- Use the whole item. Fennel fronds add an artful flourish to presentation. Sprigs of rosemary can perk up a table setting. Save discards for making stock later.
My thanks to the generous chefs who, both wittingly and unwittingly, have let me learn from them at the markets!