Local veggies hard to come by for Anchorage chefs

Posted: Monday, August 30, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Last summer, local food finally had its moment in the restaurant scene. Across the city, dozens of menus, from Orso to Carl's Jr., featured local greens and veggies from Mat-Su farms. But this summer, chefs have been struggling to keep the momentum.

The biggest factor? Distribution.

On a recent weekday morning at the Spenard Roadhouse, chef Shane Moore squeezed through employees, who were chopping vegetables, sorting food and preparing for the 11 a.m. opening. The restaurant likes to feature local food on the menu, but this summer, getting it to the kitchen hasn't been easy, he said.

Last summer, a business called AK Root Sellers, run by chef-turned-entreprenuer Dave Thorne, made local food deliveries. But this summer, Thorne, who also works as a traveling chef with national musical tours, couldn't pull together enough business early in the season to make his delivery service pencil out. And that has had a ripple effect.

Thorne supplied local produce to Snow City Cafe, Sacks, Kinley's, Bear Tooth, Muffin Man/Cafe 817, Natural Pantry, Jack Sprat, Glacier Brewhouse and Orso, he said.

Stephanie Johnson, manager at Bear Tooth, said AK Root Sellers was a huge help to them. Orso Chef Rob Kineen agreed.

"He was the link," said Jacob Zollner, sous chef at the Roadhouse. "Palmer is not very far away, but you're not going to find many farmers willing to truck to Anchorage."

Chefs say they have also been buying a limited larger local food from DiTomaso. DiTomaso did not return several calls.

Thorne didn't just act as a distributor. As a chef, he knew what good produce looked like, chefs said. For example, when lettuce arrives at a restaurant dirty, it takes more work to get it to the table. Thorne was good about getting clean greens to restaurants, because he understood how washing them ate up valuable time, Moore said.

Chefs in the area trusted Thorne. He was evangelical about local food, and that got chefs excited, Zollner said. Losing Thorne's energy and his eye for consistent quality was a blow, he said. Consumer demand for local produce has never been higher, chefs say, which is one reason local farmers markets have taken off.

"Without a doubt, markets are growing," said Amy Pettit, spokeswoman at the Division of Agriculture. "More people are attending them, and more people are buying more of their food product at the farmers market."

Without a major local distributor, more chefs are turning to the markets for produce as well.

On a recent Wednesday, Zollner wandered through the rows of produce at the Northway Mall market. He picked up two heads of romanesco cauliflower, which he had not seen at a market this summer.

"A lot of it is looking for new things," he said. "You can't serve the same halibut every day of the week."

His most recent special featured a seared halibut with a puree of purple cauliflower and fennel over mashed Alaska potatoes topped with pickled onion and purple cauliflower. On the side was a saute of fresh peas, zucchini and squash. All of the produce was from the market.

But for bigger restaurants, the markets, or even the Valley farms, might not be able to meet the demand.

Orso serves upward of 275 people per night, said Kineen, the restaurant's chef. For him, it would be impossible to go to the farmers' market to get his produce.

Kineen tries to work directly with local farmers who supply produce and designs menus that can feature local foods when they are available in good supply.

"I think last year I ran three farmers out of produce," he said. "Hopefully it will encourage them to grow a little more." Weather is another variable that makes local food in Alaska tricky. You might think recent record rains would be a boon to farmers. Not so fast.

Lesley Dinkel and her family own Dinkel's Veggies, a farm out of Wasilla. This summer's weather has not provided any extra help in meeting restaurant demand, she said. She sold her first carrots of the summer a the market on Wednesday. Back in the garden, her pea plants haven't produced enough peas to harvest. She's having to pull corn plants out of the ground because so much moisture earlier this summer made them rot.

Dinkel said this summer is exceptionally bad, but there have been a string of summers that have started like this one did - cold and wet.

"I think a lot of people go, 'Oh yeah, last summer was great,'" she said. "But they're thinking about August."

Mostly, she said the business is just unpredictable. Too unpredictable to supply restaurants with the constant stream of produce they need.

"Unless it's a really hot, great, fantastic summer, we usually don't have any extra," Dinkel said.

Despite the weather, and this summer's hiatus, Thorne isn't discouraged. When he gets back to Alaska, he plans to try AK Root Sellers again.

"Since I do have the relationships with all these farmers, I can jump right back into this," he said. "The passion for it is there."

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