With flowers blooming and vegetables sprouting in colder climes as early as March this year, chefs in the Midwest and Northeast were able to get a head start on spring menus. For Andrew Zimmerman, executive chef at Sepia in Chicago, that meant bringing back a seasonal favorite: Spring Pea Agnolotti with mascarpone, thyme butter, pickled shallots, shaved French breakfast radishes, torn mint and grana padano.
“I always highlight produce that is seasonally available and fill in with ‘seasonally neutral’ fruits and vegetables, like citrus and carrots,” says Zimmerman. Sourcing locally is important to Sepia, but it can be pretty limiting in winter. “I’m able to buy lettuces, spinach and herbs from farmers who have hoop houses and I can get carrots from Wisconsin all year round,” he adds. The warm spring yielded baby leeks from Stone Circle Farm, tiny turnips from Shooting Star Farm, both in Wisconsin, and an array of radishes from Leaning Shed in Michigan. But Zimmerman goes further afield for other must-have items, such as the season’s first ramps and morels from a purveyor in Oregon.
Sepia and a handful of other Chicago restaurants work closely with Rink DaVee of Shooting Star who formed Green and Green—a network of farms that sends email updates to chefs and offers a website for members to log in and place orders. Many of Green and Green’s farmer members also display their bounty at Chicago’s twice-weekly Green City Market. Zimmerman shops there from time to time, “but you have to get there at 6 a.m. or pre-order if you want to buy anything good,” he notes. “I like to go there to get inspiration and a reference for what is actually available locally during a particular week.”
Zimmerman admits that it’s “fascinating and fun” to work directly with farmers, but it’s also a lot more work. To supplement, he buys his “nuts and bolts” produce—bananas, Idaho potatoes, lemons, etc.—from a conventional produce company. “Besides, I have to spend my local, organic, seasonal dollar wisely to stay within my purchasing budget,” he adds.