As they compare piles of apples and taste test salad greens this Saturday, shoppers at the Courthouse farmer’s market could catch site of a man in a tall white hat, surrounded by a crowd of followers.
Jay Jenc, head chef at IOTA Club and Café, will lead shoppers through the market, giving tips on how he picks produce, as he kicks off the county’s "Guest Chef" series, three two-weekend events spread over the course of the summer.
The series is sponsored by the farmer’s market, the county’s Parks and Recreation department, and Virginia Cooperative Extension joined by three local restaurants.
Saturday, May 18, marks the kickoff of the series, as Jenc leads shoppers through a chef’s ideas while shopping.
One week later, May 25, he will take shoppers back to his kitchen at IOTA, to demonstrate what kinds of dishes can be prepared with produce from the market.
In some ways, Jenc said, his options are unlimited.
"There are a couple of stands out there who sell breads or cookies," he said. "There’s a place, Sunnyfield Farms, out of Little Washington, Va., that also sells organic meats and sausages. So you really can make one stop for everything you need to prepare a complete meal."
It would have been nice to conduct that kind of demonstration in the market itself, said Tom Taylor, coordinator of the program for the Virginia Cooperative Extension. "We wanted to hold the cooking demonstration in the farmer’s market, but the health department said, ‘No,’" he said.
<b>IOTA’S MENU CHANGES</b> every week, dictated by what kind of fresh produce is available, Jenc said. So he’s used to keeping an eye on what’s in local markets.
"Actually, the restaurant is closer to the Clarendon Farmer’s Market, which is on Wednesday mornings, so I usually go up there," he said. "But when I get a chance, I do go down to check out some of the things that’re at the Courthouse market. I was just there this weekend."
What he sees are late-spring and early summer staples, asparagus, new potatoes, fennel and strawberries. Those may well translate to salads, side dishes and deserts, or a glaze. "I use a lot of fruit preparing lighter meat dishes, chicken, or lamb," he said.
There were also herbs, which may translate to an Asian dish, augmented by some of the vegetables available. Jenc said he may also look at a salad made of fresh field greens, "mesclun, arugula, frisee – salad items that you may find chopped up in a cellophane bag at Safeway, or used as the base of a salad at a restaurant."
But he wasn’t sure yet what his shadows would see this weekend.
"I’ve got a few ideas floating in my head, but I don’t know exactly what’s going to be there," he said. "That’s the way the business is: you take what you can get, because the freshest ingredients are always the best."
<b>THAT’S THE PROBLEM</b> with grocery produce, Jamie Forsyth said. Forsyth, an employee working the stand for Gardener’s Gourmet this Saturday, compared the salad greens in bowls he was selling with the salads sold at supermarkets.
"A lot of the time, they’re coming in from California, and there’s not a lot of flavor," he said of supermarket salads. "This," he said, pointing to a bowl labeled Mesclun Mix, "This has real intensity."
Restaurant owners know that, and often look to local farmers for produce, Forsyth said. "We’ve got a restaurant route in Baltimore, for five years, and started one in DC this year," he said. It means the freshest produce available, and provides a good selling point. "We have one guy who calls his house salad ‘Farmer’s Market Salad.’"
Jenc takes advantage of a similar service. "In conjunction with the farmer’s market, I deal with a produce purveyor that hand selects a lot of the things I get for the restaurant," he said.
But in addition to a better quality of produce, Forsyth said, farmer’s markets often mean a wider variety of produce. "We sell a lot of heirloom varieties," he said. "We try to grow a lot of things people don’t have. If everybody has the same thing, you just get into a price war."
<b>WAYNE WRIGHT DOESN’T</b> come to the farmer’s market for variety, but he’s happy to find it. Wright and his wife Nancy live in Courthouse Hills, and head to the nearby farmer’s market every Saturday morning that they can spare.
This past weekend, they stopped at Forsyth’s stand before heading out of the market, buying a bag of salad. "We bought salad, with flowers in it, as a gift," Nancy Wright said. "We also bought sausages – we like organic meat, not force-fed with hormones – and we’re looking for flowers to plant."
"Whatever’s here, we’ll buy here, produce, meat, flowers, rather than drive to a nursery in the suburbs, or spend our money at the grocery" Wayne Wright said.
They were intrigued by the prospect of the Guest Chef series in part for that reason, and in part by the idea of seeing what goes in a chef’s head as he finds the raw ingredients for a menu.
"We read ‘Kitchen Confidential,’" a confessional about the doings in famed restaurant kitchen by Anthony Bourdain, Wayne Wright said. "Our first reaction is, that’s great."