As he worked his way from farm stand to farm stand at the inaugural Little Italy Wednesday Market, chef Mike Reidy was efficiently and intently smelling bunches of mint, gently rubbing romaine lettuce leaves between two fingers, eyeing containers of sheep’s milk yogurt, popping heirloom cherry tomatoes into his mouth and dropping ears of corn into his shopping bag.
The 29-year-old chef de cuisine at Little Italy’s Ironside Fish & Oyster was in the zone. And clearly in his element, considering Reidy has been nicknamed “Farmer’s Market” by his kitchen colleagues due to the depth of knowledge of “product” he got by shopping the famed Santa Monica farmers market while working for two Michelin-starred chef LA chef Josiah Citrin at Mélisse in Santa Monica and Charcoal Venice.
Little Italy’s new Wednesday market is an offshoot of the restaurant-centric neighborhood’s 10-year-old Saturday Mercato, which is the largest in San Diego County. The weekday morning market, which drew a steady flow of shoppers and lookie-loos along its three-block stretch of West Date Street on its first day, is geared toward chefs like Reidy who regularly rewrite their menus, based on what’s fresh and available. The chef estimated that 40 percent of the ingredients used at the restaurant come from local farms.
“We’re excited about this market,” said Reidy, who is originally from Poway. “To have one every couple of days is good for everybody, chefs and farmers. It’s better to see everything you can and cherry pick the best of the best.”
Bringing farmers and fishermen nearly to the doorstep of Little Italy eateries on Wednesdays will be a boon for chefs looking toward the busy weekend, said Reidy’s boss, Jason McLeod, executive chef with Consortium Holdings, which has five restaurants in the neighborhood — Ironside, Born & Raised, Craft & Commerce, Underbelly and the soon-to-open Morning Glory breakfast concept in the new Piazza della Famiglia public square.
“Saturday is hard because it’s so busy, there are trucks everywhere, there’s nowhere to park. Now, chefs can get in an out easily. It’s going to help,” said McLeod, who earned two Michelin stars in 2010 while the chef at Ria, in Chicago.
“Wednesday is almost like the beginning of the week for us, with most of us taking Monday or Monday and Tuesday off,” he said. “And being fresh from the farm, everything has a day or two longer shelf life than what you’d buy from a distributor.”
Catt White, CEO of San Diego Markets, which includes both Little Italy farmers markets, as well as ones in Pacific Beach and North Park, is trying to make the new venture especially accessible to chefs. She’s working out an arrangement to let chefs start shopping at 8 a.m. — an hour earlier than opening — and will supply them with chefs’ lanyards to allow quick access to pre-ordered ingredients.
White said she’ll ask farmers to supply chefs with a “hot sheet” on Tuesdays to alert them of unique inventory coming in, discounted produce and items they need to move. And she also decided to limit the number on non-farm vendors at the Wednesday market, inviting about 85 to have a midweek stand, versus more than 200 vendors who participate on Saturdays.
“We’re giving the farmers more space because I think the chefs are really going to want to dig into what the farmers bring,” White said.
Laura Avery, supervisor of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, said chefs are increasingly making up a bigger slice of that venerable 37-year-old institution’s customer base.
In the past year, an estimated 19 percent of gross sales at the Santa Monica Wednesday market came from wholesale purchases made by restaurants and produce companies — including San Diego’s Specialty Produce, Avery said.
“It’s a trend we’re just starting to watch but it’s continuously growing trend and the farmers love it,” she said.
“At the Wednesday morning market, you find that most farmers and chefs know what they’re looking for, they’re very discerning.”
Avery, White and McLeod all extolled the benefits of chefs being able to establish face-to-face relationships with farmers who they can trust to tell them what’s fresh and high quality — and what’s not. In return, the farmers gain some certainty in the volume they can move, when selling to chefs.
While they tasted and inspected the produce Wednesday morning, McLeod and Reidy chatted up several farmers on which varieties of fruits and vegetables they grow and when they’re available. The chefs took several business cards and McLeod — after a 10 minute conversation with husband and wife farmers Nicolina and Jeff Alves about the ephemeral nature of figs — scored an invitation to tour their family’s Terra Bella Ranch, which straddles the county line between Fallbrook and Riverside County.
“They’re so finicky,” McLeod said about figs. “You have to use them that day. I usually just end up eating them.”
Then, pointing to a basket of dehydrated sun-dried tomatoes, McLeod asked how they sell. “You never see them anymore. When I starting cooking 30 years ago, they were everywhere.”
He asked Nicolina Alves for a small bag, which he handed to Reidy to put in his market bag. “I’m going to bring sun-dried tomatoes back,” McLeod said, with a laugh.
While several other chefs — dressed in black chefs’ pants and jackets — perused the aisles, vendors know that it’s the more unpredictable “table customer” who drives the bulk of the sales at farmers markets.
At the Salmon Slinger stand, Rebecca Light was quizzing employee Phoebe Cricket about what went best on the grill. Cricket told her the fresh, wild sea bass, which Light bought; 2 pounds, 13 ounces for $58.
“I usually go the market in La Jolla, but I heard this was happening,” Light said. “We just dropped our son off at zoo camp, so this is great.”
Cricket said the Wednesday market would help the small, San Diego-based fish company reach a broader customer base. “It’s for the people who can’t make it on the weekend. … Most of our customers are regulars and so far, everyone today I’ve never seen before.”
For his part, “Farmers Market” Reidy spent about 1 ½ hours walking the new weekday market before taking his bagful of corn, tomatoes, garlic, micro greens and sun-dried tomatoes back to Ironside — just a half a block way on India Street. Within minutes, he had cooked up three ideas for dishes that would be served that night at the stylish fish house.
The corn would be cut off the cob, cooked in butter then made into thick, batter-dipped corn fritters.
The heirloom tomatoes would be sliced into chunks and skewered alternatively with similarly-sized pieces of swordfish.
And those sun-dried tomatoes would be chopped, rehydrated and made into a harissa-sherry vinaigrette that would be a sauce for a piece of swordfish topped with arugula.
An ingredient that, only a half hour before, had been a chef’s whim, was transformed into a high-end restaurant dish.