One Monday afternoon this February, a D.C. restaurant was the culinary equivalent of the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union.
The area’s best chefs from haute spots like the Inn at Little Washington, 1789, and local-chain-turned-national sweetgreen squeezed in to one location along with the region’s top farmers and food artisans. Hopefully at least one toque was hidden in an undisclosed location to keep Washington’s restaurant world alive in case something happened to us.
But unlike the State of the Union there were no dry speeches, only cold beer, fingers flying over smartphones, and speed dating. In traditional speed dating, a bunch of strangers looking for love meet in a location prearranged by some service (presumably run by the dark lord himself, if you’ve ever been to romantically oriented speed dating). Two people chat one-on-one for a couple of minutes until–ding!—a bell rings and everyone must move on to the next person. Speed dating fits a picky crowd short on time, working crazy hours, and with very specific desires and needs who can’t waste time talking to the wrong person. Farmer, meet chef. Chef, meet farmer.
Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture in Alexandria, Virginia, is preparing for its second Farmer-Chef Speed Dating session this fall, after a wildly successful first meeting. Upon arrival at local restaurant Birch and Barley, 75 toques and purveyors each received about a half dozen matches based on questionnaires they filled out plus a nametag with icons developed by local-agriculture specialists Greenease representing the items they were buying or selling, from microgreens to chickens to cheese. Arcadia provided the all-important beer and technology–#FarmerChef2014. The hashtag made it possible for farmers and chefs to tweet in advance about the event to notify potential business partners of their attendance, be aware of who was in the room during the event, and connect with an elusive contact in person—all of which will become even more important as the event grows bigger.
Even with technology and exponentially multiplying websites attempting to connect farmers with buyers, getting everyone in a room at a set time and location is vital for independent chefs and small farmers, as both groups work with small margins in risky businesses with passionate personalities and unreliable schedules. Popular demand for farm-to-fork restaurant meals puts a huge strain on both chefs and local farmers, who are chained to their work locations—you gotta cook and you gotta farm.
Good chefs desperately want to use the best product, which is almost always local because it’s fresher and hasn’t traveled as far (I know what I would look like after traveling 3,000 miles by truck). Good chefs, the ones who inspect food as it’s dropped off from individual providers, usually don’t have time to drive out to local farms each week. The best local farmers, whose acreage might produce the tastiest asparagus, can’t spend all their time darting from restaurant to restaurant trying to sell it and likely don’t have schedules that fit with chefs’ schedules. Additionally, the farms may be too small to attract large-scale distribution. So the chef is left pining away for the best asparagus and the farmer is left wishing she could sell the best asparagus.
Arcadia’s Farmer-Chef Speed Dating provides the two players a location to meet, deliberate over growing methods and transportation issues, and discuss guaranteed purchase minimums. This is especially critical in a city with no regional food hub, aka a central and consistent location for small producers to sell to both chefs and consumers. Food hubs are a win for everyone. If a farmer has a ton of strawberries and a chef visiting the food hub doesn’t need all of them, then the home cook gets to buy some pints, giving every average person restaurant-quality ingredients and farmers the ability to easily sell extras. As with the speed dating session, technology plays a key role, notifying consumers of a bumper crop of inexpensive corn or special offering of foraged morel mushrooms for one day only.
Arcadia is working to establish a D.C. area food hub. In the meantime, this fall’s speed dating is a suitable substitute. Back in February, one chef was overheard offering to do a tasting of a chicken farmer’s wares at his restaurant for a bunch of other chefs, so the farmer could sell to the competing restaurants, just to ease the farmer’s transportation costs. In the notoriously cutthroat restaurant industry, perhaps sustainability may rank right up there in importance with a great review.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.