Meet Your Maker

Connecting your crew to the source can inspire the staff and deepens its appreciation of quality ingredients

Before Chef Tim Keating took his staff to Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee, Fla., few of them knew how Rhode Island Red chickens show affection. 

“They peck at your shins,” Keating says. “We had the team out in the middle of hundreds of these chickens. It’s a blast. Everyone’s literally picking up eggs—probably some of the best eggs I’ve had in my life—from under these chickens. The people who’ve been there, they get it. They understand it and they’ll never forget it.”

"They’re not going to waste product once they know what went into it."

— Chef Jonathon Sawyer of Greenhouse Tavern

Keating, the chef de cuisine at Flying Fish Cafe, a 180-seat restaurant inside Disney’s BoardWalk Villa Resort in Orlando, Fla., knows he doesn’t have to organize these field trips every other month. No one requires him to build relationships with farmers or coordinate transportation for groups as large as 60 cooks and servers. But the returns he sees from these visits are unmistakable: a greater respect for the ingredients, less waste in the kitchen, a stronger understanding of the menu and a rejuvenated, enriched staff.

“The young culinary professionals come back with a whole new idea about what they’re serving, and they can tell a story about it,” Keating says. “We have an open kitchen and we’re interacting with customers every day. Having been to a farm really puts something very personal in the dish that you’re preparing and serving.”

Practically speaking, it can also put something new on the menu. 

Without last year’s trip to The Culinary Vegetable Institute in Huron, Ohio, Chef Jonathon Sawyer—owner of the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland—says he wouldn’t have thought up the restaurant’s popular “veganbop” spin on bibimbap. 

“We got tons of menu items that to this day we’re still using,” Sawyer says. “It probably wouldn’t have happened had it not been for us totally immersing ourselves in this farm and challenging ourselves to use ten more vegetables in one plate.” 

High-profile chefs—like Rick Bayless of Chicago’s Frontera Grill, who takes his staff to Mexico each July to seek culinary inspiration—have long been proponents of hands-on learning. But increased public interest in local ingredients is making it worthwhile for restaurants to invest in this type of education. 

At Buttermilk Kitchen in Atlanta, Chef Suzanne Vizethann carves out time between making biscuits and tomato marmalade to bring suppliers and farmers to her 68-seat breakfast and lunch spot to meet the staff. Though it would mean an extra-long work day, she hopes to organize a trip to Woodland Gardens Organic Farm in Athens, Ga.

“Part of our concept and our survival is to educate people about the local and organic ingredients we’re using and why we’re using them,” Vizethann says. “Knowing the farm helps you to do that.”

Of course, sourcing from small suppliers—and transporting staff to visit them—comes with costs. The Culinary Vegetable Institute, for example, charges restaurants for research and development trips based on attendance. And even a day trip to a nearby farm means gas money, meals on the road and factoring in lost time that cooks could be in the kitchen. Still, Sawyer says he sees tangible results long after a farm field trip is over.

“Fruits and proteins grown like that cost more than the industrial version, but my kitchen is more likely to respect those ingredients, to try to use all of it,” he says. “They’re not going to waste it once they know what went into it.”

While his staff jumps at the chance to visit the strawberry fields in Plant City, Fla., or the largest organic citrus orchard in the U.S., Keating has also had success recruiting cooks and servers from other Disney restaurants to visit sturgeon fisheries, clam beds and even a shrimp processing plant. 

“I hear it once a week: ‘Chef, when are we going to go?’” he says. “In the beginning, it took a little bit to invigorate them, but people across (Disney) started hearing that we were doing this and now they say, ‘Make sure you ask us, too.’”

3 Reasons Why Field Trips Benefit Everyone 

Deepens knowledge of ingredients. Cooks often have newfound appreciation after a field trip, but the servers are the true ambassadors. After they’ve seen the hives where honey is collected or understand the importance of bees in nature, that enthusiasm is easily conveyed to diners.

Bonding is a good thing. Gathering coworkers in different settings allows colleagues to see each other in a different light. This can be especially important for front and the back of the house staff, whose interactions tend to be frenetic.

Instills a sense of pride. When staff visit a mom-and-pop tofu company, a farmer, the stockyards or an industrial cheese plant, learning how the product is made and seeing those who make it can be gratifying.