By Merrill Shindler
"There were some chefs and farmers who didn’t show up," says Jane Hauser of Wisconsin’s Culinary Connection, a firm that represents local artisanal producers like Cedar Grove Cheese and Renaissance Farms, "because they really thought it was a dating service. Not that that would be a bad thing—people in the culinary trade usually don’t have time to date."
The "dating" that she’s speaking about had its Wisconsin debut from 2 to 4 p.m. on October 29, in a hall at the West Side Club. It was sponsored by REAP (an acronym for the far clunkier Research, Education, Action, and Policy on Food Group), a group whose slogan is "Buy Fresh Buy Local Southern Wisconsin." And to do that, they’ve hopped on a bandwagon that’s slowly picked up speed in the locavore universe—Farmer-Chef Speed Dating.
REAP was actually inspired by Ecotrust of Portland, Oregon, which established its Farmer-Chef Connection back in 2001. The connection was created along with the Portland chapter of Chefs Collaborative and the Washington State Department of Agriculture—an annual springtime gathering that allows chefs and purveyors to get together to discover who produces what and who needs what.
(The Farmer-Chef Connection Web site—www.farmerchefconnection.org—is very impressive, with a search engive that gives chefs access to a wide range of producers. I typed in "Brussel Sprouts" and was given a list of 34 growers in Oregon and Washington. And really, who wouldn’t want to buy their Brussels sprouts from Bumblebee Farm in Troutdale, Oregon or Whistling Train Farm in Kent, Washington?)
What began as face-time in Oregon, turned into face-time-with-a-clock in Wisconsin, with a setup of 13 tables of two purveyors and two chefs each, and the chefs rotating every 10 minutes. "They ring a bell," says Hauser, "though sometimes people had to be dragged away from the tables. Chefs were so excited to find ingredients they didn’t know existed."
According to REAP project coordinator Rachel Armstrong, "There were chefs who discovered products like Scottish highland cattle, which they had no idea were being raised here in Wisconsin. There were no sales at the event—that wasn’t its purpose. It was to inform chefs of what’s available. And if there was a product that a chef was looking for that wasn’t there, there were people who could get the chef and the grower together."
To which Hauser adds: "There was also plenty to taste, though not a lot of chefs were eating. They were too busy talking to stop and eat." How successful was it? As Armstrong says, "Next year, they’re going to need a bigger hall."