Market to Table – Farmers’ products offer restaurateurs inspiration, local sourcing

Most chefs have to drive – or at least walk – to get to a farmers market. Cedar’s executive chef Aaron McCloud just steps out the front door. Situated at the center of Washington, D.C.’s heavily trafficked Penn Quarter neighborhood, the FRESHFARM Market is open Thursday afternoons from late March until the end of December. Every week, McCloud takes a swing through the sprawl of stalls to source fresh produce and proteins for his New American focused menu. “We cook whatever’s good that day,” he says. “So we reprint the menu three or four times a week.”

Strolling through the tables and tents, the smell of fresh cut flowers, a bounty of herbs, and wood smoke – courtesy of a mobile pizza oven – mix together to create an intoxicating blend. A violinist plays off to one side, his energetic melody intertwining with the chatter of shoppers and the clatter of commerce. McCloud first stops in at Gunpowder Bison & Trading Co. to look at some Delmonico steaks that he thinks might be a good entrée at dinner service that night. Ultimately, he decides to hold off on purchasing them until he sees what else is available this week.

After chatting with some farmers to find out whether they offer wholesale pricing for restaurants and to exchange contact information with vendors he hasn’t worked with before, he picks up a two chunks of slightly nutty Piedmont cheese from Everona Dairy. But the purchase doesn’t inspire him as a main course component. Then he comes across bags of stinging nettles at the Evensong Farm stand. “Maybe a quick sauté with these in some saffron butter and the Delmonico steaks,” he thinks out loud. For good measure, he picks up two-dozen just-gathered eggs.

McCloud isn’t the only one taking advantage of the just-harvested bounty on display today. “It’s a chef-centric market,” says Ann Harvey Yonkers, executive co-director FRESHFARM Markets. “There’s always a plethora of white jackets shopping.” Some of Washington, D.C.’s top chefs frequent this market, including Fiola’s Fabio Trabocchi, Bibiana’s Nicholas Stefanelli, Poste’s Dennis Marron, and the chefs from José Andrés’ThinkFoodGroup restaurants. They don’t just shop there – they’re intimately involved. Many of them have done live cooking demos for the Chef At Market program, while two highly respected chefs sit on the board – Nora Pouillon from Restaurant Nora and Cathal Armstrong from Restaurant Eve.

If chefs can’t make this Thursday market or are seeking out different vendors, they have plenty of choices. There are nearly 100 markets of varying size and frequency in and around the District. Chefs across the country are seeing their options expand on this front. Local Harvest, a searchable database of farmers markets, family farms, and sustainable producers, lists almost 6,000 farmers markets in the United States.

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Photo of Cedar’s executive chef Aaron McCloud chatting with a vendor at the FRESHFARM Market in DC’s Penn Quarter.