Chefs from Chicago and Chattanooga may not have paid much attention to weather in the Carolinas this winter, but they’re likely to confront its consequences when placing orders for their Charleston Wine + Food festival events, produce suppliers say.
“I can’t remember a six-month period where I’ve had to hunt as hard or pay as much as we have to get the produce our customers need and expect on a daily basis,” Limehouse Produce’s lead buyer Weston Fennell says.
Fennell emphasizes his company has been able to fulfill requests, but often with ingredients that are neither cheap nor local. He anticipates the mismatch between chefs’ desires and produce availability will worsen during next week’s Wine + Food festival, when culinary talents are anxious to show off their best tricks. Admittedly, it’s hard to wow a crowd with mashed potatoes.
“We face the same predicament every year,” Fennell says. “Most chefs are psychologically ready to create spring dishes by March, but the vegetables we identify with spring — asparagus, sweet peas, tender greens, etc. — are not quite ready yet.”
In previous years, Fennell says, “a local farmer or two has been able to eke out an early harvest of very limited quantities to satisfy one or two chefs.” But that scenario looks unlikely this time around, since growers are coping with the aftereffects of October’s historic floods.
Sara Clow, general manager of food hub GrowFood Carolina, doesn’t blame the floods for circumscribing the produce supply. She agrees with Fennell, though, that coming up with the ingredients that chefs want for festival menus is an annual challenge.
“The chefs who prioritize using local, fresh produce will use whatever is available,” she says. “This year we’ll have kale, radishes, turnips, sweet potatoes and lettuces, and then all of the pantry items: pecans, rice, grits, salt, dairy and eggs.”
Clow is hopeful that “more chefs this year will prioritize using all the amazing items the Lowcountry has to offer.”
One of the items available this year, weirdly, is strawberries. While the odd strawberry has surfaced on past festival menus, a flurry of local strawberries reached the market in January.
“Strawberries are in a state of total discombobulation,” Fennell says.