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.