1:15 pm Jul. 11, 2012
It’s high season at the Union Square Greenmarket: tables overflow with pint boxes of catalog-ready strawberries, lettuces the size of basketballs, and corn so sweet farmers snack on it raw, and the city’s cooks, pro and amateur alike, are out in droves, snapping up all of the sugar snaps before noon.
The summer bounty means big business for the farm-to-table restaurants that shop the market, and the restaurant shoppers are generally easy to spot—they’re the frantic-looking errand boys, decked out in chef whites and clogs, who arrive armed with a grocery list and a dolly cart to schlep heavy loads back to the kitchen. But spend enough time at the market, and you might start to notice another, smaller group of shoppers who, in plainclothes, quietly load up on beans and greens by the bushel, in quantities no home kitchen could possibly handle. Who are these people and what are they doing biking down 17th Street with milk crates full of summer squash?
“My job title is technically forager, but I always say to take it in the larger sense—technically, it’s someone who gathers things,” said Johanna Kolodny, who works at Print, the restaurant adjacent to the ink48 Hotel on the far west side of Hell’s Kitchen. She’s one of the city’s market foragers, an elite group of shoppers who are hired by a handful of restaurants to scour the markets for the day’s best finds.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but this job falls to just a select few. They’re not cooks, and they’re not what we think of when he hear “forager.” They’re not gathering wild mushrooms in the woods or picking stinging nettles from the fields. These foragers are city slickers who arrive to the Greenmarkets early in the morning, develop serious relationships with farmers, and maintain exacting standards for what they will and won't take back to the chefs they report to. Their job is a constant balancing act, between the kitchen’s demands and the market’s realities, and while the job may sound frivolous at first, their work is no walk in the park.
Kolodny, 33 (pictured at left), who started her career working for a farm-oriented distribution company before pitching herself to Print when they opened in 2009, is responsible for ordering and inventory for nearly all of the food that comes into the restaurant. Over the phone last week, Kolodny explained her process: working off of a giant spreadsheet, she tracks standing wholesale orders from local distributors, along with chef Charles Rodriguez’s daily market requests, which might include smaller quantities of seasonal items like zucchini or fava beans.
Three days a week, she goes to Union Square around 8:30 a.m., taking a quick lap to price-compare and scope the selection before doubling back and starting her rounds.
She tries to find everything Rodriguez asks for, but leaves room for a few impulse purchases, too, based on limited-run specialties the chef can’t anticipate from the confines of the kitchen: golden raspberries, for example, or shisito peppers.
“I have to antagonize [Charles] about using certain ingredients, but I know him well enough to know when I can push and when to hold back,” she said. She also knows almost of all the farmers personally, and has been able to finagle advance ordering deals with a some of them, a perk casual shoppers can’t enjoy.
After amassing a few hundred pounds of produce, Kolodny loads up a yellow taxi (“Hailing a cab is not pretty. Many a driver has passed me by.”), strategically placing heavy items toward the bottom of her bags like a grocery-line expert. During an average trip in the height of summer, she estimates that she spends about $1,000 at the market.
When I asked Kolodny if she considers a full-time forager a necessity or an extravagance for a restaurant, she didn’t bristle.
“Having me allows Charles to focus on the kitchen. The reality is that if a restaurant is ordering in a responsible way, they probably don’t need a forager. But a lot of places could ultimately cut costs by bringing someone who can set up a system that streamlines their purchasing process,” she said. To that end, she’s recently cut down her hours at Print to consult for other kitchens.
Other foragers have a more nebulous role. Ben Steinberg, 27 (pictured above right), started as a bicycle delivery boy for Northern Spy Food Co. in the East Village in August 2010. Six months later, he’d taken over market runs from owner Christophe Hille, pedaling a custom-built bike outfitted with canvas pouches to Union Square in the early mornings.
At first, Steinberg was essentially picking up a grocery list, but with time and the addition of a new chef, Hadley Schmitt, his role gradually became more collaborative.
“As I’ve gotten to know the farmers and Hadley, I can be a lot more flexible,” Steinberg said while sifting through shell peas at S&SO’s farm stand in Union Square last month. “I get our staples but I also try to pick out the most interesting things for him to experiment with.” Schmitt shops when he can, but working in the kitchen until 2 a.m. most nights makes an 8 a.m. trip to the market a less-than-enticing prospect.
Steinberg’s market strategy is similar to Kolodny’s, except that he’s a bit more limited by his two-wheeled conveyance. After parking his bike and taking an initial lap, Steinberg picks up his pre-orders, then saves room and money for a few unplanned marquee items. Onto the bike everything goes, and Steinberg carefully cuts east across 12th Street back to the restaurant.
“It’s dicey carrying 300 pounds of produce across town, but I’ve only tipped two or three times,” he said. “Usually, if I don’t stop moving, I’ll make it back in one piece.”
For Steinberg to earn his keep, though, his role expands well beyond shopping trips: he serves as a sort of all-around handyman/errand boy for the restaurant, tackling the day-to-day chores that ensure the entire space runs smoothly.
“I call it the forage/schlep/steward position,” laughs Northern Spy co-owner Christophe Hille. “We’re too small to have someone we would consider a full-time forager, so we throw a lot of other stuff his way—crossing town [to the restaurant’s seasonal stand on the High Line] with large amounts of food, running to the Bowery to get new spoons, cleaning the grease trap and the walk-in, fixing a broken blender, whatever. It’s a very pragmatic thing for us to have a young, speedy set of legs around who can get things done for us. That’s how we justify the position.”
While both Kolodny and Steinberg are on staff at individual restaurants, some foragers work on more flexible terms. Kate Galassi, 27 (pictured at right, with cardoons), started as a shopper for The Spotted Pig in 2010, and has spent the past two years bouncing between foraging and farm jobs since.
“I think the back-and-forth allows me to do my job really well,” she said over the phone last month. “Being on the farming side allows me to bring a certain knowledge of how seasonal produce works back to the restaurants.”
She’s manned the farmstands for Berried Treasures and Maxwell’s Farm at the Union Square and Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Greenmarkets, and foraged for the short-lived Tribeca restaurant Compose, its successor Atera, and, most recently, Allswell in Williamsburg, whose chef used to work at The Spotted Pig. Galassi recently parted ways with Allswell and is cobbling together a variety of jobs, working again with Maxwell’s Farm and a high-end produce distribution company based in California.
An econ major in college, Galassi explained that she’s been able to market herself as a logistics and operations whiz, but fell into foraging through her interest in local foods.
“The biggest reason to have a forager is to have someone translate between the farmer and the chef. Chefs in New York are in a position to educate customers about the importance of local food, but they need to understand the realities of what that means,” she said. “The hardest part for me has been realizing that often chefs can be very disconnected from what actually happens on a farm.”
Her day-to-day work tends to be less lofty in its ambition: she too functions as a sort of catch-all handywoman for her restaurants, albeit less with physical tasks and more with administrative work. She’s handled everything from accounting to setting up OpenTable profiles to ensuring Health Department compliance, in addition to juggling food ordering.
“Foraging in New York is about figuring out, Okay, I need six cases of broccoli rabe this week, and I can get four of them delivered, and I need two more from XYZ,” she said. Galassi isn’t sure which direction she’ll go for her next gig—as more distribution companies specialize in local food and deliver the same kinds of products that could once only be found at markets, the need for a staff forager seems less pressing.
For the foragers who still are foraging, however, time is of the essence, in more ways than one: whether their jobs will flourish or become obsolete in coming seasons, the blueberries are hitting their peak now, and there’s shopping to be done.
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