Emanuel Loubier sits outside of his intimate Riverbend restaurant, Dante's Kitchen, smoking a stogie and marveling at how the food scene in New Orleans has changed. "15 years ago," he says, "regular restaurant customers weren't thinking about where the food they were eating came from, and now they do."
Certainly, a more educated local restaurant-going clientele has contributed to the success of Dante's Kitchen, but it is Loubier's particular style of hands-on, ethical restaurant management, along with his passion for seasonality and intuitive understanding of the food business as one of trust-based partnerships that make Dante's Kitchen such a great friend of marketumbrella.org.
Lining the walls of Dante's Kitchen are jar after jar of pickles, jellies, sauces, and relishes. When, as they say, "the crops are in, the price is low and the quality is top," they'll buy up case after case of produce to preserve. This year they've already gone through 100 pounds of meyer lemons, 200 quarts of peaches, and 100 quarts each of green beans, okra, watermelons and cucumbers. The summer's sweet corn goes into relish, and they make tomato sauce and ketchup with the creoles.
In addition to buying roughly 70% of the featured ingredients on their menu from small-scale local vendors, Dante's Kitchen uses only fair trade coffee and biodegradable to-go containers. Eman's sous-chef, Mike Doyle, is a Crescent City Farmers Market fixture, who shops every week for the restaurant's kitchen with his baby, Moira strapped securely to his chest. Even when the two can't buy locally, they make sure to purchase only sustainably harvested fish and ethically raised meats. It's all part of a "commitment to pursuing sustainability within all aspects of our operation," says Mike.
As an extension of their work in this field they have developed a synergistic relationship with one of the market's more innovative vendors, Tony Accardo. One afternoon last week, Mike invited Tony over to the restaurant to share his knowledge of canning. They took his delicious peppers, grown in the rich black alluvial soil near Perique, LA, and roasted them, making dozens of jars of hot sauce and pickled peppers. In exchange, Tony, who studies Dietetics and Culinary Arts at Nicholls State, gave the restaurant 20 ponds of chiles. Another time, Mike offered to take a busy and grateful Tony's entire truckload of vegetables off his hands and sell it at cost to other chefs out of an air-conditioned backroom.
"Restaurants need to be a little more than just restaurants; they need to be hubs for the food system," Mike asserts. Encouraging such layering of relationships and going beyond the simple transaction of food for money are essential goals of marketumbrella.org's Forager, who put the three men in the same room at an event back in February.
These kind of relationships are not entirely new, of course, but they never cease to be effective. As Farmers and chefs exchange skills and knowledge they build trust with each other, and now Eman, Mike, and Tony feel comfortable enough with each other to commit to working together next year.
For his part, Tony loves working with such involved partners. "They're interested in trying new stuff," he says of Eman and Mike. "Without that kind of attitude, the whole food system in the city, region, and state ain't gonna go nowhere." What's more, he continues, "they give me feedback about what they like about certain plants. It helps me out. I need better information myself. It works out real real good like that."
Market Umbrella is an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3), based in New Orleans, whose mission is to cultivate the field of public markets for public good. Market Umbrella has operated the Crescent City Farmers Markets (CCFM) since 1995.
The Crescent City Farmers Market operates weekly year-round in four New Orleans neighborhoods. The CCFM hosts nearly 80 local small farmers, fishers and food producers, and more than 100,000 shoppers annually.