Sky Full of Bacon

Sky Full of Bacon 15: Big Chef Small Farmer

Farmers and chefs, can’t live with ’em, can’t… In this Sky Full of Bacon I look at the question of whether quality, sustainable agriculture can scale up to meet the needs of our modern food system by talking to a bigtime Chicago chef and one of the local, organic farmers he buys from.

Sky Full of Bacon 15: Big Chef Small Farmer from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Mark Mendez is chef of one of Chicago’s largest restaurants, and certainly the biggest restaurant with any kind of commitment to organic and local foods, Carnivale. David Cleverdon of Kinnikinnick Farm near Clarendon, Illinois is one of the many farmers who supplies Carnivale with high quality, organic produce. I talk to the two of them to get a sense of how chefs and farmers are both trying to work their way toward a system that supports better food and forms of farming— and deal with the challenges imposed on them by the realities of the other guy’s business. It’s a literally down-to-earth look at the issues too often discussed mainly at the 10,000-foot level in books and documentaries about the industrial food system.

With the irony that this podcast (delayed for over a month by heavy rains that prevented planting, and thus shooting of planting, at Kinnikinnick Farm) became notorious for to me, I finished it just as Mark Mendez announced that he would be leaving Carnivale in August. It may be tempting to read some signs of dissatisfaction into what he talks about here, and certainly you can sense that he was increasingly interested in running a smaller, more chef-driven restaurant, but for me the real story remains how restaurants like Carnivale and chefs like Mark are helping nudge the food system toward better ways of working, even when many would consider it just too big to even be able to care about such issues.

Here’s Carnivale’s site, and here’s Mark’s own blog; there’s not a lot there but this is a nice post about some of the same issues he talks about in the video. And in terms of previous Mendez-Media, Helen Rosner did this slideshow last year of Mendez showing you what to buy at the Green City Market— including Kinickinnick arugula.

Here’s Kinnikinnick’s site. You can buy their products at the Green City Market and the Evanston Farmer’s Market.


About Sky Full of Bacon

Sky Full of Bacon #14: The Last Days of Kugelis
Sky Full of Bacon Short: Making Illegal Cheese
Sky Full of Bacon #13: Pie As a Lifestyle
Sky Full of Bacon Short: Edzo’s Burger Shop
Sky Full of Bacon #12: In the Land of Whitefish
Sky Full of Bacon #11: A Better Fish
Sky Full of Bacon #10: Prosciutto di Iowa
Sky Full of Bacon #9: Raccoon Stories
Sky Full of Bacon #8: Pear-Shaped World
Sky Full of Bacon #7: Eat This City
Sky Full of Bacon #6: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2)
Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1)
Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

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10 Responses to “Sky Full of Bacon 15: Big Chef Small Farmer”

  1. Michael Morowitz Says:

    Great piece, Mike.

    My biggest takeaway from this video was how both Chef Mendez and Mr. Cleverdon made me, as a consumer, feel like the restaurant world is killing the organic, local small-scale agriculture market.

    Two things made me think of this:

    1) When Mendez described the phone calls from Nichols when they’re awash in a particular item and they need to get rid of it, it made me shudder a bit. When a farmer can easily send a high percentage of their bumper crop to one or two chefs (and they know it) where does that leave the consumer? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Nichols stand with a sign advertising a cheaper special one week on a crop they’re awash in. If they can dump it on Carnivale 150lbs at a time, then the product only stays in the hands of people who can pay up at the market or pay up for restaurants like Carnivale.

    2) Mr. Cleverdon addresses this explicitly by describing how it destabilizes his business when he caters his crops to feed the restaurant industry, which thrives on consistency. When these small farms are re-tooling for consistency of their own bottom line based on the consistency of fancy menu items, the consumer who really wants these products in their home isn’t winning.

    The best solution, as Mr. Cleverdon so succinctly points out, is: “We need more farmers”.

  2. Mark Mendez Says:

    Michael, few things. One of the problems facing consumers and restaurants alike is the distribution of their products.Even most of the small farmers still produce an amazing amount of produce and even though Carnivale might purchase 15-20lbs a week he still usually has some for anybody else that might want some. In the case of Nichols farm spinach he sold me quite a bit but actually sold more to a local college that served it in their cafeteria which I think is a very cool thing. He still had plenty at the market because he just had so much, his fear was that he had such a huge bumper crop it would go to waste. Most of the farmers (not all) prefer the CSA approach because it gives them a more stable consumer. Chefs are notoriously fickle and can sometimes stop buying certain things or take them off their menus without consulting the farmers and they are sometimes left with surpluses of produce that might be difficult for them to sell. I also think it important for chefs to be the leaders as far as promoting local/sustainable agriculture, if we stop using these ingredients or supporting these farmers will people understand how important these issues are? I also think we need to focus more on getting people as excited about healthy nutritious food as they are about hamburgers. If we can’t get more people to cook for themselves, to have a relationship with food, to have a connection with where it comes from, what is the point? The other thing is, in all honesty, I know a lot of farmers, and almost all of them are not very good business men, they are farmers. There are definitely things they could do better as far as reaching out to consumers. But in the case of Nichols, how long would it take for him to sell that 150# of spinach to consumers? Chances are he is not going to sell that in a day at any farmers market. The thing is, the average consumer CAN buy most of the things we use at Carnivale, which is one of the things I think is so great about the Grenn City market. It might take a little more work, or getting up a little earlier, or talking and engaging the farmers a bit more, but the stuff is there. Now with Dietzler and Becker Lane there, you could honestly get almost anything at the market we purchase here. As far as the cost of these items, sure, most of the time the farmers will cut me a break because I buy so much but in all honesty it’s not as much as you might think. We still pay much more for everything we buy from GreenCity than we do from our conventional produce supplier. The thing is it will always be more of a challenge to buy local/sustainable, whether it be from a cost perspective or availability. I don’t really see most of what I buy as “fancy” menu items. Arugula? SPinach? tomatoes? zucchini? Seriously, if anyone were ever ask me how to find these items or get a better price, or better whatever, I would be more than happy to talk to them and help them with their search, I think most chefs would. Thank You so much Michael for asking me to do this, very cool, even though I think I sound like a South Side idiot.

  3. Michael Gebert Says:

    One observation from Dave Cleverdon that didn’t make the final cut was that for him, the healthiest thing for him (and any farmer) is when his restaurant clientele has two or three suppliers for each thing. If they only have one, then he as a farmer has to worry that if he doesn’t have arugula that week, he’ll lose that client forever. But if three farmers are each supplying some of three different things (I simplify for illustrative purposes; it’d actually be more like 100 things), then there’s enough slack that he doesn’t worry about losing somebody, while the farmers likewise have greater diversity of crops. I think that’s a good example of why he wants more farmers, it makes it easier for every farmer to have a stable business.

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  5. art jackson Says:

    Another great piece, of course. This is just the tip of the iceburg in my opinion. Cleverdon talked about marketplace structure. There will be so many small farms growing good stuff around us, above us and down the street in the future that accessibility to good, real food will be the same as it is right now for conventional which many people think is their only choice. When that happens, we will have a truly diverse marketplace full of choices when it comes to purchasing food and prices will range from low to high and in between. At the end of the day though, an increase in small farms is not possible without increased interest and ability to prepare raw ingredients. When people begin to learn, appreciate and demand good raw materials, young farmers will take to the dirt to meet the demand.

  6. Matthew Says:

    Wow! Finally got around to watching this. Definitely one of the best yet. Mendez does a really good job of explaining the situation a large restaurant is in, and Cleverdon does the same from the farmer’s perspective.

    Also, I want to thank Mendez for making his above comment. It added a lot of insight that wasn’t in the video.

  7. charcutier Says:

    Having worked in both a smaller fine dining restaurants and currently working in a place doing about half of what Mark is doing on an average night, I am feeling encouraged. My ExecChef says that we put out too much food to do much Farm-to-Table work. But through this I see how it is difficult, but doable to a certain extent. Perhaps it does need to be more of a non-weekend verbal special. This also helped me understand the plight of the farmer as I’ve been in kitchens when the Exec has been unhappy with a product that had been getting from a single source instead of finding multiple sources for products that rely on much more than a farmer’s ability. Thanks Mike, Mark and David!

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