The tastes of summer reveal themselves in a number of ways, from the sugary juices of a watermelon to the berry-colored stains on a farmer’s fingertips. Here in Washington, chefs around the District are taking full advantage of summer’s bounty — and, even better, much of it is local.
Robert Wiedmaier of RW Restaurant Group (Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, Mussel Bar and Grille, Wildwood Kitchen, etc.) believes in the importance of putting faces to food, knowing the people behind certain products and, ultimately, being able to buy with confidence.
“I’d much rather talk with the farmer or the cheese maker or the guy who caught my striped bass on the Chesapeake,” he said, as opposed to buying from a commercial, faceless source. “The romance goes away when you buy in a package.”
Wiedmaier buys from roughly 15 different vendors from surrounding states, including Congressional Seafood for blue catfish and striped bass from Chesapeake Bay. For the best local mushrooms, he frequents the Irwin Mushroom Company, a second-generation family-run business in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (known as “Mushroom Capital of the World”).
Indeed, there is something sensual about indulging in a local product, a richness of flavor and color. “Normally it’s a better product if it’s local,” Wiedmaier said, adding, “That’s not always true, but we try to buy as much locally as we can.”
This philosophy is put into practice at the Chapel Hill Farm in Berryville, Virginia, where Wiedmaier sources whole Randall Linebacks, the oldest and rarest cattle breed in America. The farm — a registered Virginia Landmark and National Historic Landmark — is situated in the Shenandoah Valley; conservation and tradition are at the heart of the program.
Another chef who’s incorporating local products into his menu is David Guas of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar and Eatery, with locations in Arlington and Capitol Hill. Chances are you’ve seen chef Guas on the “Today Show” or the Food Network, or even as a co-judge on the Travel Channel’s “American Grilled” program. The New Orleans native is a big proponent of using local foods at Bayou Bakery, where he is working to cultivate a culture and invigorate a taste for Southern style.
At Toigo Orchards in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, Guas finds a rainbow assortment of fresh produce: apples, pears, sweet nectarines, watermelons and award-winning peaches, among other stone fruits. The farm has over 21,000 trees solely for fresh-market apple production, and the orchard uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM) growing methods, which eliminate chemical residue.
While Toigo Orchards has Guas covered with the best in local fruits, Potomac Vegetable Farms fulfills his vegetable needs. Cabbages, spinach and radishes; collard, mustard and turnip greens; bell, chili, jalapeño and shishito peppers — these are just a few of the goods he and his team pick up from the Saturday farmer’s markets. “Everything they do is top-notch,” he said, adding that Bayou Bakery also buys their okra there (which they then pickle for their bloody Marys).
The Bayou bloody Mary was recently mentioned in Washingtonian, and for good reason. Served in a 16-ounce Mason jar with a creole-seasoned rim, it’s loaded with pickled vegetables, green olives and fresh lime.
Venturing into farmer’s markets and stocking up on seasonal fruits and vegetables give Guas and Wiedmaier an opportunity to color their menus in creative ways. However, this practice also fosters friendly, trusting relationships, one of the great gifts of doing business locally. And just as foods have their own flair and personality, so do the people who grow, harvest and sell them.
“I love doing business with good people,” said Guas. “It starts with that.” And good people he has found, including Jamie Stachowski of Stachowski Market and Deli on 28th and P in Georgetown, who makes all kinds of sausages for him, including boudin and andouille. Tom and Susan Hunt of Westmoreland Berry Farm in Oak Grove, Virginia, are another example. Guas waits in long lines at farmer’s markets to get his week’s worth of their fresh asparagus and berries, including their award-winning strawberries.
Back at Bayou Bakery, Guas’s accumulation of local ingredients shines through in many of the menu items, including beverages. One of the most popular cocktails at Bayou Bakery (aside from the bloody Mary) is the NOLA Backyard Swinger, a grapefruit-based beverage with bourbon, local honey, jalapeño and fresh rosemary. The jalapeño, sourced from Potomac Vegetable Farms, adds a nice heat. The honey used is lovingly called “Holly’s Honey,” named after a grade-school student (she and her father bring it to Guas from Ashburn, Virginia). In addition to the NOLA Backyard Swinger, this honey is also available at the chef’s “Sticky Station,” which features an array of honeys for guests to sample by stirring it into their tea, folding it into their oatmeal or spreading it through the insides of a hot, flaky biscuit.
Washingtonians are lucky to be surrounded by such strong agricultural communities. Artisans and farmers from Pennsylvania to Virginia and Maryland are passionate about their products, and chefs in the District are increasingly interested in sourcing the best ingredients they can. “That’s what we do as chefs,” said Wiedmaier, “we source.” For the rest of us, all that’s left to do is eat and enjoy.