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Q & A with Jean Bernstein

How would you describe the cafe?
We’re an everyday place that offers easy access to fine-dining food at a fast-casual price point. Everything is made from scratch—we really care about what our customers put in their mouths. And we’re very product-centric; quality and purity drive our purchasing decisions.

How do you source agricultural products?
We spend lots of time working with a variety of suppliers, both large and small, local and national, to bring the freshest, most flavorful ingredients to the table. Sysco is our broadline distributor and we’re high-volume enough now that they try to meet our specs. For example, we wanted to bring in sustainably farmed chickens and since we use a quarter million pounds of chicken a year, Sysco went out of their way to find a supplier for us. It takes some extra effort on both our parts, but once you establish a relationship, it works.

Tell us about your smaller suppliers.
The turkey sausage we use is made locally from free-range turkeys and our sirloin comes from grass-fed cattle. We’re currently getting most of our tomatoes from a co-op in New Mexico, but we also run a small, experimental farm that’s producing limited quantities of vegetables for our restaurants. And we’ve arranged through a broker to buy our coffee directly from the growers and roast it ourselves.

How important is organics?
The economics of organics doesn’t always work for us. Our average menu item is $10 and the price of organic products is often too high to keep our food costs down to 30 percent. I’m more concerned about getting in pesticide- and hormone-free food that’s raised sustainably and humanely. We have more of a “Whole Foods Market” philosophy—offering a mix of organic and all-natural items, always paying attention to our customers’ priority for healthy, great-tasting food. For example, we were trans fat-free way before it became trendy.

What sourcing advice would you give to others?
Do a lot of research and digging to find the best network of suppliers and establish solid relationships with them. Smaller producers and purveyors can often be better for your bottom line. I also ask a lot of questions when I travel and eat. If I see an appealing product on the retail side, I’ll contact the manufacturer directly. And when we can’t locate what we want, we make it ourselves in our commissary. That’s how our baking mix was created. You have to be willing to go the extra step.

The Making of an Apple

Red and Yellow Delicious were the dominant apples for years, gaining favor for their shipping and storage qualities. But sturdy as they are, these apples taste kind of one-dimensional and have a mealy texture—not in sync with today’s preference for complex flavor and crisp texture. So the American apple industry is responding with varieties like the Honeycrisp.

This apple was created at the University of Minnesota by cross-breeding a Macoun and a Honeygold. Tim Byrne, VP of Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, Minnesota, describes the offspring as “an apple that explodes in your mouth when you take a bite. It’s crunchy, juicy and aromatic all at once.” Before the Honeycrisp was released commercially, it went through intensive sensory evaluation at the university. In 1992, it was offered to orchardists to plant and market and today, it’s a big hit with both consumers and chefs.

Now Pepin Heights is going for even greater crunch by marketing a cross between the Honeycrisp and the Zestar. This new baby, currently dubbed the “MN 1914,” has received rave reviews with taste panels. What’s more, it thrives in cold Northern climates, ripens early in the season, stores well and is a good looker. Pepin Heights has hired a branding company to give the new apple a catchy name and trademark; the fruit should be ready for commercial production in about two years.

 “There are 45 orchards from Nova Scotia to Washington State that have signed up to grow the apple,” Byrne says.

The first 100 bushels will be tested this fall. They will go across the grading line, and then we’ll drive the apples around in trucks to see how they hold up in transit.” Byrne’s goal is to have these apples available only from October through April so flavor and texture will be at their peak.

Ideation: From Farm to Table

Blueberry breakfast breads
Pastry chef Craig Harzewski of Country in New York City’s Carlton Hotel favors fresh, seasonal fruits for his house-baked breakfast breads. From July to September, blueberries dot his muffins, scones and turnovers. Country’s dinner crowd also gets to sample a breakfast bread—every guest takes home a complimentary mini poundcake to enjoy the next morning. 

Miami almond rolls
The student chef team from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miami won the grand prize in a competition sponsored by the Almond Board of California for this Asian dish with a Latin spin. Almonds infuse the rice with flavor, enhance the vegetable medley and spike the vinaigrette. An accompaniment of avocado-ginger spread uses another California agricultural product—the avocado.

Meat plus three
At the casual Brownings in Louisville, Kentucky, chef-owner Anoosh Shariat updates a Southern blue plate classic—Meat Plus Three—with farm-fresh vegetables. “I try to utilize as much local produce as possible during the growing season,” Shariat says. “Some of the farmers deliver right to my restaurant.” Right now, fried fish, chicken or pork share the plate with asparagus, corn, tomatoes and zucchini.

BLT Stuffed Tomato
One of America’s favorite comfort foods—the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich—goes upscale at CaliTerra in Boston’s Wyndam Hotel. Instead of lettuce for the BLT’s “L,” Chef David Ulrich uses cooked lobster, giving the classic trio some local New England flavor. Other sophisticated touches include diced, cooked pancetta and basil chiffonade in the stuffing and tomato coulis on the plate.

Honey lamb chops
The Mediterranean-style Spoodles at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, reflects the “inspired fusion” cooking of its executive chef, Tony Marotta. For his Lamb Chops with Pear and Kiwi Salsa and Sweet Potato Puree, Marotta combines three American-grown fruits for the salsa—pears, kiwi and cranberries—and balances them with sherry vinegar and orange blossom honey “for its slightly acidic notes.”

Sweet Corn Ceviche
Chef-partner Michelle Bernstein infuses South Florida’s bounty with lusty Mediterranean and Nuevo Latino accents at her new Miami restaurant, Michy’s. Located near the largest corn producing region in the nation, Bernstein often incorporates the sweet kernels into her dishes. Here, she marinates raw, supersweet corn with potatoes, vegetables, peppers and aromatics in a lime vinaigrette.

American Originals

Some of these crops have been growing in America for eons, while others evolved from agricultural ingenuity.

  • Cranberries were revered by the Native Americans for their medicinal properties. Today, the berry’s bacteria-blocking compounds are making news.
  • Pecans are a member of the hickory family. Georgia leads in production, averaging 88 million pounds a year.
  • Scarlet corn is the latest addition to the supersweet corn family. Its rosy kernels are eye-catching and tender.
  • Sweet potatoes were originally white-fleshed only. When North Carolina starting growing orange ones several decades ago, shippers labeled them “yams” after the African word, “nyami.” True yams are starchy tubers; they are drier and lower in beta-carotene.
  • Vidalias are naturally sweet, mild onions that are grown in a defined area of 13 counties and portions of seven others in Georgia. The soil and climate combine to turn the pungent yellow granex onion into the sweet Vidalia.
  • White wheat flour is milled from hard white wheat with a high whole grain content but mild flavor and light color. It’s catching on with commercial bakers eager to boost the whole grain and fiber content of bread without changing appearance or flavor.

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