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Botique Farms Supply Chefs

 
More and more chefs are using local products from area farms to make their menu unique and special. Such a movement is a way for farmers to find a niche to sell their products.

For many restaurants, the answer is as simple as being vigilant. Mark Russell, owner of Scottsdale-based Oregano�s Pizza Bistro, participates in an automatic FDA advisory system. Although he vets his source for spinach, he was able to pull the produce from all eight of his Arizona restaurants within minutes of the E. coli alert last fall. For six days, his customers simply did without the leafy green.

In the high-end restaurant arena, however, the solution seems to be shunning large commercial purveyors and turning to boutique domestic farms, ranches and dairies. What began as a fad, following the burgeoning national trend toward �eating local� and seeking artisan foods, may actually be better for your health.

Last fall, Wright�s at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in Phoenix changed to a new concept called American lodge cuisine, emphasizing fresh foods of America�s small-scale producers. Its menu now boasts porcini from Flagstaff, olive oil from Queen Creek, basil-fed snails from Cave Creek and tomatoes from Tucson.

Wright�s also unveiled its own garden, growing pink peppercorn next to the resort�s swimming-pool cabanas and harvesting kumquats, lemons and blood oranges from trees scattered on the property. An herb patch blooms directly outside the dining room, and Chef de Cuisine Matt Alleshouse makes raisins and sun-dried tomatoes.

The Boulders Resort & Golden Door Spa in Carefree planted a 6,800-square-foot organic garden last year to provide chef Wendy Little with seasonal staples such as peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, prickly pear, citrus, figs, grapes and herbs.

Even Scottsdale-based Paradise Bakery, with 46 stores in 10 states, plans to switch to free-range chicken from a boutique Pennsylvania farm later this year. With 592,000 pounds of poultry used in 2006, the move will cost �a lot,� executive chef Gregory Casale said. �But our research shows that it has real value of perceived health benefits.�

At Trader Vic�s and Cafe Zuzu in Scottsdale�s Hotel Valley Ho, executive chef Charles Wiley has long been a proponent of buying from boutique suppliers. He hosts periodic dinners showcasing local farmers such as Pat Duncan of Goodyear�s Duncan Family Farms and buys from Sunizona Farms in Queen Creek, relying on their greenhouse program through Arizona�s searing summers.

In many cases, as with the Snake River Kobe-style beef preferred by executive chef Beau MacMillan of elements at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley, chefs tour farms and meet the animals (or fruits and vegetables) that will be served at their restaurants.

Providing such high-quality, non-mass-produced food costs a restaurant more. And while many Valley chefs agree the investment is worth it for a savvy clientele demanding brand names and a seasonal, safe product, the same diners sometimes get sticker shock.

Wiley estimates his artisan products cost 15 percent to 40 percent more than generic brands, meaning an increase of about 2 percent in overall food cost. Alleshouse estimates his overall food costs range from 1 percent to 3 percent more by using boutique-farm ingredients, �but it�s a small price to pay to ensure the safest quality of food is delivered to our guests.�

To keep customer prices in line, Wiley manages strict portion control of specialty items, while Wright�s absorbs shipping costs on items such as its Maui goat cheese. As a rule, chefs build strategic relationships with their boutique providers to keep prices competitive.
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