Even before chef Anthony Devoti opened Five Bistro about six years ago, he was cultivating relationships with St. Louis-area farmers. You might expect, then, that he gets the pick of the crop when he buys local produce.
You’d be wrong.
“There are some things they just won’t sell me at the restaurant,” Devoti said as he browsed booths on a recent Saturday morning at Tower Grove Farmers Market in St. Louis.
For example, Devoti said, some growers sell specialty tomatoes and other heirloom vegetables only at the market. That contrasts with the early days of his restaurant, when some suppliers would approach him because they wanted him to introduce foods and preparations to his customers.
Now, however, many of those items have become familiar to home cooks. The farmers can sell them at a higher price to consumers than to chefs.
“It’s also really helped them that virtually everybody (in the restaurant business) keeps getting more and more local,” Devoti said.
Most of the produce he buys at the market is for his family, but he also browses the stands for inspiration for recipes that may make the seasonal menus at his restaurant.
For example, he grabbed a couple of containers of yellow plums, some elegantly formed ball squash and some pale carrots, as well as more standard items such as beets, corn and pickling cucumbers.
Everything is just so vibrant right now, he said.
“If you come to the market every week, these people will get to know you and your tastes,” he said. “When they have something new, they’ll say, ‘Here, you have to try this.’”
A CHEF’S TIPS FOR GOING TO MARKETS
Chef Anthony Devoti of Five Bistro offers these suggestions for shopping at farmers markets:
• Arrive early if you’re looking for unusual produce or for items that probably will sell out quickly, such as berries, squash blossoms and fruits at the beginning or end of their seasons.
• Before you buy, make a circuit of the market to evaluate quality and prices.
• Ask questions. Farmers may offer advice on preparation and recipes, and they’ll get to know you if you come to their booths regularly.
• Sign up for email lists and make note of vendors with Facebook pages and other social-media communications. Many sellers provide product lists before they arrive at a market.
• When you get home, keep it simple. Take advantage of colors, shapes and textures, but limit the amount of ingredients that you use so that seasonal flavors take center stage. Simple techniques such as roasting are often the best for highlighting vegetables’ and fruits’ natural flavors.