great grass = great lamb

News and notes from John and Sukey Jamison of Jamison Farm, Latrobe PA

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Merry Mail Order Season!

               Jamison Farm                                                                          

It was the spring of 1994. We were in San Francisco at the IACP conference(International Association of Culinary Professionals) We entered the dining room the first morning of the conference for the "networking" breakfast. The room was set up for a breakfast buffet. We went to the buffet first for coffee and toast and then looked for a place to sit. We found a table for 8 with only three seated. We properly asked if we could sit in case anyone was saving a seat for a friend. When told to "have a seat," I sat next to a man in proper business attire. The other two at the table were females in chef garb. So there we were, 2 farmers in various degrees of denim seated with 2 chefs and 1 businessman. It seemed to be a diverse table that may not have much discussion at that early hour.

I introduced myself to the businessman on my right. As it was somewhat noisy, I heard his first name was "Chuck" but didn't catch his last name. He asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. As is my normal response, especially at a "networking" breakfast, I gave him probably only a 5 minute nonstop about our farm. It could have been my usual 15 minute diatribe but I was being polite. Surprisingly, he seemed interested. He asked me how we raised the lambs. So I went on a bit longer about raising lambs on grass. He said something about "Sonoma Lamb" which was prized in that part of the country. We had flown to SF the day before and hadn't seen a blade of grass so I was lost at the big deal about Sonoma Lamb.

I then spent another non-stop five to ten minutes going on about the incredible quality of the grass in our area on the Chestnut Ridge of the Allegheny Mountains. I was so stirred up that I forgot to eat. Either trying to be polite or just to change the subject, Chuck asked me how I sold the lambs. Now I was on a roll. I started by telling him that there was no market for high quality lamb in Western PA so we started a mail order business so we could ship all over the country. I told him that we had a huge mailing list of over a thousand names.

Finally I took a breath. Just at that pause, when I was about to launch into another story of my mail order genius, Chuck said, "We have a mail order business too."

I said, "Really, do you send out a catalog?"
He answered, "Yes" just as the two chefs across the table looked over and started to snicker.
Between sips of coffee I asked, "What is the name of the catalog?"
I managed not to spit out my coffee, but I did encounter some heartburn as I nodded, "Oh, you're Chuck Williams."

So the "Chuck" I was talking to was the founder of Williams-Sonoma. Rather than being offended by my overenthusiastic and hyperbolic evaluation of our then fledgling business, Chuck asked a few more questions, told me what the circulation of their catalog was and then asked me then and there if we would be interested in selling our product in his catalog.

We started with Williams-Sonoma that holiday season, terrified that we would not be able to support the huge increase in business. Glossy photos in a big beautiful catalog gave us credibility. We learned how to efficiently ship that kind of volume. We stayed with them for three years. Even after all these years, we still have customers who started buying from us during that time. That exposure was the defining moment of our mail order business.

Chuck Williams was a great friend to the food industry and helped bring many companies like ours to a national presence during the holiday season. Thanks to him and Merry Christmas to you!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

We couldn't make this up!

We had just had one of our Lamb class dinners in which Sukey demonstrates cutting and cooking while I tell entertaining stories about chefs that we have known. We were saying “Good Night”. I was escorting my wined and dined guest to the door when he leaned over and started touching the floor. Before I could ask if he were ok, he said, “Sorry John, you’ve dropped so many names tonight, I just had to pick them up.”

I let pass that uncomfortable moment in which you decide whether to laugh or just call it a day. Being the proper Host, I laughingly agreed with my parting guest as I ushered him out the door. After the guest was safely plied into his waiting Limo, I promptly marched back to the kitchen, grabbed a glass of wine and plopped down in front of the fire for some serious rumination.

I guess he had a point. I had told stories about people we dealt with as we grew our farm business. Since the dinner guest had pronounced himself a “Foodie”, I felt permitted to refer to the stars of my stories by the familiar names I use for them. Maybe it was just the use of first names that got him, but then maybe it was the way I said it.
“Sukey and I had white wine with Julia (Child) at 10:30 in the morning.”
“Alice (Waters) used our lamb for an inauguration dinner.”
“Jean-Louis (Palladin) called at about 2:00 in the morning needing lamb for a lunch for Mrs. (George H.W.) Bush.”
“Eric (Ripert) bought our lamb as a sous chef for Jean-Louis (Palladin) and still uses it at Le Bernardin.”
“Dan (Barber) wrote about us in his book, “The Third Plate”.
“Norman (Van Aken) said we were just trying to change the world.”
“Tony (Bourdain) said we changed everything."

We were there when “it” started. What can I say? We were.

What was “it?” It is referred to now, albeit loosely, as “The Food Revolution." After Sukey and I started listening to great chefs, we tried to produce the quality and type of lamb they wanted. This thinking that producers providing exceptional products would be highly sought after by chefs was dawning in the late 1980’s.

Sukey and I were children of the sixties who “gave up the Volvo Station Wagon” for a used Dodge Pick Up. We started a mail order business in 1985 to sell our grass fed lamb to retail customers. In 1988, we were discovered by Chef Jean-Louis Palladin who told all his “French Mafia” friends about our lamb. The European Chefs and their disciples knew about local open or farm markets. Most American chefs were not there yet. Most conventional chefs bought on price from national and local distributors that sold meat and veggies out of the same truck that delivered janitorial supplies.Why and how this movement started and gained momentum is a long story. For Sukey and me, it was short and sweet. The hottest chef in the country at that time called us to deliver three young lambs to him for a dinner four days away. We delivered on time with lamb that was so beautiful he was reduced to tears.

There we were, just two English Majors going back to nature, thinking grass farming was cool, different, and better for both the animal and the soil. We did not know the lamb the grass produced was to be prized because it was younger with cleaner and better tasting meat. We always thought we would never sell  to local chefs. We had been thrown out of more than a few local restaurants mostly because I couldn’t match the price of the large commodity producers. My thought with the “chef business” had been that if our lamb was good, it was because of what the chef did. If the lamb dish was no good, it was because of what I did. Selling to restaurants was a dead end street.

But, after Jean-Louis, that all changed. We started being called by chefs from all over the country. Back then, it was a small group of chefs who were able to serve this quality and a fairly small group of purveyors who were able to supply it. So after a few years, by the early 1990s, we all knew each other by first names from either personal dealings or reputation. All these chefs were taking chances and pushing envelopes. Words of technique like “fusion”, “nouveau”, “nouvelle”, and “instinct” were defining cuisine from areas like France, Italy, The Caribbean, and Asia, and were soon to be coming to USA. The tide had turned and we were swept up in it's foam.