Dave Hughes knows chefs. As a farmer who grows and sells specialty produce to Nashville area restaurants, he’s been building relationships with them for more than 16 years. And what he’s learned is that chefs are looking for consistent quality and reliable service.
“I had one restaurant where I sold just a bit of produce each week for three years, maybe $40 to $50 worth a week,” Hughes says. “And then one day the chef said to me, ‘You’re going to be our sole provider for the summer,’ and overnight the restaurant became a $500-a-week customer. I pulled the chef aside and asked him why he made that decision, and he told me he needed to be sure that I could consistently and reliably deliver quality produce over the long term. When I did, I won his business.”
That dependability is essential because when chefs have to feed 150 people or more a night, they can’t worry about whether the food will be there or if it will be fresh.
“As a farmer in this market, if you want this to be a long-term business proposition, you have to do your part every single time,” says Hughes, who works with 23 different restaurants.
You also have to listen.
“I have had the honor of working with very talented chefs, and they provide direction on how and what we grow, so we can meet their needs and their food-cost parameters,” Hughes says.
Shawn Mitchell, a chef with Iris Etc. Catering in Memphis, agrees that the chef-farmer partnership is integral to what happens in the kitchen and what is presented at the table. He says initiatives like the Pick Tennessee Farm and Restaurant Alliance, which provides opportunities for farmers and chefs to connect, further those relationships.
“Everything is intertwined,” says Mitchell, whose previous experience includes teaching at the L’Ecole Culinaire in Memphis and running a national traveling chef tour.
“When chefs build a strong relationship with the farmer, they have a partner who will grow things specifically for them. That provides benefits for the chef, the farmer and, ultimately, the consumer.”
Building such partnerships is natural for Mitchell because he’s worked on farms and has an appreciation for the farmers’ hard work.
“I always try to get as much local food as possible because I have the relationship with the farmers and the producers. I know the story behind their businesses, and I know that I’ll be able to get a fresh product,” he says.