Sunday, July 11, 2010

Eberhard Muller - Satur Farms

I recently returned to my cooking school alma mater, The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE).  When I attended it was called Peter Kump’s Cooking School and was located on East 92nd Street in a bare bones walk-up.  I can recall opening the street level door and staring at an almost vertical three-story staircase up to the kitchens.  The kitchens consisted of two rooms with a couple of huge Viking stoves, a few refrigerators, no air conditioning (it was summertime when I went), and a black tar roof where we could grill food and roast ourselves all at the same time. Back then I couldn’t cook to save my life; all I could make with any success were Christmas cookies. I had also looked at attending the French Culinary Institute and decided PK was much less intimidating, which I liked given how green I was in the kitchen.

Peter Kump had just passed away when I began my stint at the school and the students were told we could attended his memorial service if we helped pass champagne at the end of the service.  I was happy to do so and it’s there I meet several legendary chefs including Jacques Pepin (somewhere out there is a picture of me and my friend Laura giving him a peck on either cheek) and Julia Child, who was sharp as a tack and very gracious.  We cooked our graduation dinner at James Beard’s former townhouse.  I have wonderfully fond memories of this quirky little place and the people I met there.

Now the school is much fancier and in a new location on 23rd Street.  This is where I went to hear former Le Bernardin and Lutece chef, Eberhard Muller, talk about his current passion and business venture, Satur Farms.  I’ve known about Satur Farms for years; when a chef of Muller’s status quits his day job to do something else, it makes news.  I have seen their delivery trucks around Manhattan and their salad greens at my Whole Foods and was curious to learn more about the farm's operation.

We started with the story of how Eberhard came to own a farm in the first place.  He is German and grew up with the European model of agriculture; food grown seasonally on small, local farms and purchased the same day as harvested.  When he arrived in NYC in 1982 after cooking for several years at a Michelin three-star restaurant in Paris, Eberhard was confronted with the American model of agriculture:  produce grown on large Midwest and California farms and trucked to the Northeast anywhere from 8 – 14 days after being picked.  As he put it “the quality of food was not there”.

In 1997, Eberhard and his wife and business partner, Paulette Satur, purchased 18 acres of farmland on Long Island’s North Fork.  Initially they grew vegetables for Lutece but word quickly got out among his fellow chefs and soon they were asking for produce for their restaurants, too.  One thing lead to another, he threw in his toque, and today they own 180 acres and Eberhard considers himself a farmer.

And what a farmer!  Satur Farms is the largest vegetable farm in the Northeast, growing over 50 different crops (which include specialty salad greens, leafy vegetables, heirloom tomatoes, root vegetables, and herbs), selling to 250 accounts (from Daniel and Per Se to large scale retailers Whole Foods and Fresh Direct) and employing 60 + people.
It didn’t take me long to realize how dedicated and tireless Eberhard is about bringing the most flavorful, top-quality vegetables to his customers. Take for instance the agreement Satur Farms has with Whole Foods in the Tri-State area.  WF calls in their order by 4:30 PM the day before they would like delivery.  The farm harvests their greens the day of the call.  The greens are delivered to the WF distribution center in Connecticut at 4 AM the next day.  The greens do not enter the facility but go directly onto distribution trucks and must be delivered to the stores by that afternoon.  I’m certainly not an expert on these things, but I find it hard to believe any other produce brand sold in any of my local grocery stores can come close to offering this kind of freshness.

Satur Farm is not certified organic but they grow by organic standards as much as they can, using as little synthetic materials as possible.  They practice crop rotation and use cover crops, planting 140 - 150 acres and leaving the rest to fallow.  This is an expensive way to farm but does wonders for the farmland, returning nutrients to the soil that in turn produce healthier, more nutritious crops.  Satur Farms’ commitment to sustainable farming is as meaningful as any organic certification they might receive from the USDA.

In the little downtime they have, Eberhard and Paulette search for interesting seed varieties while traveling.  During the talk we were served a sampling of raw vegetables harvested that morning from the farm.  The arugula was grown from seeds from Italy, the Bibb lettuce seeds came from Holland, and the turnip seeds from Japan.  Their flavors were intense.   As Eberhard pointed out and I can attest is true, the taste of a Tokyo turnip is sweet when eaten immediately after being picked.  Two days later, the taste will become pungent and spicy.
Eating locally really does make a difference, first and foremost in taste.  In the debate over which is better, local or organic, I tend to side with local, the above being an important reason (with supporting the community and preserving the land also up there at the top of the list).  I have found many, if not most, of the farmers that frequent farmers markets are organic in everything but name. And given it’s a known fact produce begins to loose its flavor the moment it is picked, how tasty can that organic salad mix from California really be?
Satur Farms uses a blend of European and American farming practices out of necessity; Eberhard seemed acutely aware that his days of having a small, personal garden are long gone.  His farm is a business and he is responsible for the livelihoods of 65 – 70 people so concessions are made to the demands of the American market such as selling arugula year round even though, if left up to nature, it would grow only in the late spring and summer in the Northeast.

Another nod to American tastes is mesclun, which originated in the south of France.  Mesclun is a mix of young, tender salad greens that are traditionally found early in the growing season when the leaves are little.  As the season progresses and the leaves get bigger, it is no longer available and people buy larger, more mature lettuces.  In the United States, we want little lettuce all year round so Satur Farm sells it, even though it shouldn’t be available (and yes, I admit it; I’m one of those who love my little greens in July....and January).
For two months during winter the growing portion of the farm is moved to 150 acres in Florida, a location chosen over Arizona or California because the produce can be trucked to the farm on Long Island and washed and packaged for sale in just 36 hours. When asked about his packaging Eberhard told us when Walmart decided to go organic (a very good thing), they bought up ALL the available corn-based plastic containers on the market.  All of them!  Satur Farms prefers boxes to bags because the greens last longer and do not bruise, so at the moment their boxes are made of petroleum-based plastic.  The good news is more supplies of eco-friendly boxes appear to be on the horizon at which time the farm will make the switch.

One of the more intangible aspects of Satur Farms’ success comes from Eberhard’s years as a chef at high-end restaurants.  Even though he now considers himself a farmer, he still thinks like a chef.  He knows from experience how important it is for chefs to be aware of what is available in the market so they can plan their menus with confidence.  If a chef has ordered tomatoes from the farm and the farm runs out because of a heavy rain or unusually high temperatures or a million other possible reasons, someone will call the restaurant in advance and let them know rather than have the delivery truck show up and the driver say, “Oh, sorry, we ran out”. Keeping surprises to a minimum in the raucous world of restaurants is an invaluable service.   

This subtle but important commitment is just one of many interesting attributes I discovered about Satur Farms this night.  If you can’t tell by now, I was so impressed with the chef/farmer and his wife (whom we didn’t meet but whom he talked about throughout the evening.  Paulette oversees the accounts, makes the sales calls, and handles the administrative end of the business).  It's terrific so many of us are getting turned on to locavorism but it takes doers like the people at Satur Farms to make real change happen. Thank goodness for them!
This past winter when the farmers at the Greenmarket ran out of - yes - mesclun - I went to the grocery store looking for an alternative.  That’s when I discovered they carried Satur Farms.  When I saw it was grown in Florida I thought “Really?  Why so far away?”  Now I know why and I will buy their mesclun in a heartbeat, no questions asked.
Eberhard’s Citrus Vinaigrette
From Eberhard Muller via Martha Stewart’s website

Throughout the night, whenever Eberhard spoke about eating his greens he invariably would say, “All they need is olive oil, a little sea salt, and an acid.  That’s it.”  He mentioned that sometimes he adds a little water to his dressings because he finds most dressings too thick.  They are there "to enhance, not mask” the flavor of the greens.
This is one of his simple vinaigrettes, light and refreshing.  Try it with the freshest local greens you can find.  Satur Farms, if you’re lucky.

Juice from 1 grapefruit
Juice from 1 lime
Juice from 1 lemon
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Course salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small bowl, combine grapefruit, lime, and lemon juices.  Sprinkle in sugar, and whisk until it dissolves.  Gradually add olive oil, whisking vigorously to create an emulsion.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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