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A farmer and a chef shake hands at a Seattle speed dating event. Photo by Gregory Heller.

A farmer and a chef shake hands at a Seattle speed dating event. Photo by Gregory Heller.


Culinary Speed Dating

Joshua McNichols

Busy farmers often can't find the time to market their product. Busy chefs don't have time to go looking for farmers. A nonprofit organization called the Seattle Chefs Collaborative has a mission to get these two groups together. And they've taken a cue from Seattle's singles scene — speed dating for farmers and chefs. Joshua McNichols recently went to a speed dating event and brings us this story.


In an old timber warehouse in Seattle's SODO neighborhood, the chefs check their shopping lists one last time. The farmers sit in small groups at large round tables in the center of the room. Each table has a flag, advertising the farmers' products: produce, poultry, preserves. At the spice table, Farmer Jim Robinson practices the pitch for his crop, saffron.

Robinson: "It imparts a smooth, silkiness to food. Because the plants are sterile, every stigma is effectively genetically identical to the ones which Alexander the Great infused in his bath to emerge as a golden skinned living sun god king on the road to Babylon and points east. It's amazing!"

Volunteer chaperone Meg Chadsey: "On your marks, get set, GO!"

Chef Wayne Johnson of Seattle's Andaluca restaurant heads straight for the saffron farmer, Robinson. Johnson uses lots of saffron in his paella, a traditional Spanish dish. After a couple minutes, it's clear that chef Johnson needs more saffron than farmer Robinson can produce.

Robinson: "Because it's so very labor intensive, I can't cut the price to anywhere near Spanish or Iranian."

Johnson: "No, but it's local, and that's pretty cool. I've never heard of local saffron before. And I think we still could talk, because I think I could use it on a specialty level."

Robinson: "Well, yeah, and I can appreciate that."

After Chef Johnson leaves, Farmer Robinson speculates that he and the chef could enjoy a beautiful long–term relationship.

Robinson: "Though I'm not necessarily monogamous."

Chadsey: "This is the beginning of the next session, so buyers can get up and move to the next table."

As chefs hop from table to table, farmers have only a few minutes to convince chefs their product is special. Volunteer chaperone Meg Chadsey stands nearby, ready to encourage any wallflowers.

Chadsey: "Some people who've never done this before hear the words 'speed dating' just shrink to the walls. And I have some volunteers whose job it is to pull those people off and find them dance partners."

In another corner of the room, Chef Karen Jurgensen prepares to enter the fray. Karen needs to find ducks for her her students at Seattle Culinary Academy. The students will practice preparing duck, and sell the meals in the cafeteria at Seattle [Central] Community College. But Karen's a little nervous. She's not exactly a free and easy single. She carries some baggage.

Jurgensen: "This is my son Aage. And he's a damper to a date..."

No, I'm not talking about the little boy hanging off her neck. That would only be a liability in a REAL speed dating situation. I'm talking about a different kind of baggage. Karen represents a state institution. Working with Karen means more paperwork for the farmer.

Jurgensen: "There's a lot of challenges in that they have to go through this purchase order system, they don't get paid right away. We want to develop the relationships with individual farmers, but it's – it's a hard financial thing to negotiate."

Jurgensen sits down next to duck and rabbit farmer Brad Andonian of Abundant Acres Farm. After a couple minutes of chitchat about Andonian's ducks, Jurgensen drops the bomb.

Jurgensen: "And, how would you feel about being on a payment–type system with the state? You don't have to answer that right now."

Andonian: "I guess it would depend on &mdash as long as I'm not banging on the governor's door, I'd be open to the conversation."

The couple separates after exchanging phone numbers. All across the room, new relationships bloom. A chef from a Catholic girl's school flirts with Nash's Produce, a large grower from the Olympic Peninsula. Gourmet jam producer Deluxe Foods bats eyelashes at Full Circle Farm. The farmers and chefs here today aren't looking for one–night stands. They're looking for long–term relationships.

I asked local food advocate Zachary Lyons, who volunteered to run ran this event, what makes relationships last. He says after the thrill of the first encounter, the farmer needs to woo the chef.

Lyons: "They need to get 'em out to the ranch. They need to get 'em a sample of their beef, you know, send them a brisket, let them try it. Their brisket's going to taste different than the other farm's brisket. You need to be going to the chef and following up with them."

And if the culinary courtship blossoms, you may find the fruits of their romance on your dinner plate in your favorite restaurant.

I'm Joshua McNichols for KUOW.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

[Ed.: Transcript has been edited and differs from the broadcast version. Zachary Lyons is not a volunteer. (3/15/2011)]