A Champion of Small Farmers
This is one of the things a freelance writer can do with a blog: post articles that have been assigned and then killed and that you can't seem to place elsewhere. I wrote the following article about chef Parker Bosley (left) two years ago. He closed his restaurant at the end of last year (right after it made the Gourmet 50 Best Restaurants list for the second time) to work full time with the North Union Farmers Market and with small farmers all over Ohio.
The roads wind and narrow, dip and turn, on the drive from Parker Bosley’s restaurant, Parker’s, in Cleveland, to Michael Miller’s farm. Bosley and I pass through one small Ohio town after another—Navarre, Tarrymore, Winesburg—then onto an even narrower road just short of Berlin. Finally, we crest a green hill studded with headstones, zip past a few small Amish farms, and continue along a lush valley. Miller’s organic farm is up on the right, 86 acres of pasture and woods.
Miller and two of his young children come outside and there’s some small talk and introductions, though the children only nod and whisper to their father in the Amish tongue. Then Bosley gets down to business. “Any sign of the pigs?” he asks, his red- and white-checked shirt a bright contrast to the Millers’ muted hues.
Miller gazes up into the woods on the hillside. His new Berkshire hogs roam the upper five acres, fattening on the acorns, nuts, and wild apples that will add flavor to their meat. Bosley is already imagining a dynasty of them slaughtered and packaged and labeled: “Ohio Berkshire Pork,” available at fine restaurants and farmers markets and maybe even a few specialty grocers. Perhaps nestled near some of the other local produce he’s coaxed into commerce: organic mushrooms and heritage turkeys, as well as his most ambitious project, Ohio’s own version of France’s exactingly nurtured Label Rouge chickens.
Though this role as local-produce impresario is a new twist for Bosley, it’s not a radically new one. Born on a dairy farm in nearby Trumbull County, he grew up eating fresh and local by necessity—he and his parents, his three brothers, and his sister ate what they grew. He was reminded of the rich flavors of his youth years later when he was a schoolteacher in central France and did a lot of driving and tasting in the countryside.
“I was struck by the way that the food in each town was a reflection of its own agriculture and season,” he says. “If you drove three hours to the next town, there’d be a difference in the menu because the people there were cooking from their region and climate. By the time I started my own restaurant, I knew I wanted to do that.”
He alternated teaching with summers working in restaurants and taking occasional cooking classes at La Varenne, ultimately apprenticing with Michel Pasquet in Paris. Once back in Cleveland, Bosley served as executive chef at Sammy’s for three years before he opened Parker’s in 1986.It was there that he realized that finding local farmers to fill his larder was going to be much more difficult than he had anticipated.
“People think it’s a choice, that you can just pick up a phone and say you want local produce,” he says. “It takes a chef twice as much time to buy local produce as it does to buy commercial. With commercial, you just call one supplier and you get it all—lamb, dish soap, paper towels, salmon, carrots, everything.”
Since he didn’t know anyone he could call to order local carrots, he had to hunt down sources. At first, he’d cruise the outskirts of the city looking for farm stands, and then tell the farm family that he was a restaurateur looking for sources and that he’d be back the following week to get more of those carrots or beets or peaches—and could they please reserve a pile for him? Those farmers would tell him about others who were raising poultry or grass-fed beef, so he ventured even farther into the countryside and eventually built up a network of local sources. By the time Bosley left the kitchen to chef de cuisine Andy Strizak, Parker’s was a shrine to local produce.
“We’re almost a hundred percent local,” Bosley says. “Not seafood or olive oil, but just about everything else. We simply don’t serve strawberries or broccoli in the winter. We might serve a cobbler with blueberries that we got from a local farmer and froze back in July, but we’re not going to bring them in from Guatemala in January.”
Now semiretired, the 66-year-old devotes much of his time to expanding the pipeline of local produce to restaurants and farmers markets. He’s out in the countryside two or three days a week, investigating rumors of excellent garlic or farmstead cheese. He subscribes to more publications about farming than about cooking, and studies farming literature so thoroughly that when he urges a farmer to try a new breed or crop—like Michael Miller with his Berkshires or Ed Snavely from Curly Tail Organic Farm, in Fredericktown, now raising another heritage hog called Large Black—he knows what it’s going to take to procure, raise, and process it. He attends regional meetings of groups like the Ohio Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. When he raises his hand to offer an idea and identifies himself as a restaurateur, farmers turn and look at him in amazement. Same when he calls rural politicians to talk about legislation that will affect small farms.
“They ask why someone like me would care about House Bill 27,” he says. “I tell them that good farming and good soil make good food.”
Bosley also acts as a consultant to Donita Anderson, founder of Cleveland’s North Union Farmers Market, at historic Shaker Square. The two of them think up products that restaurants and picky consumers want (or would want, if they knew local farmers could put them on the table),then Bosley helps the farmers get started. For instance, he met with a group to the west of Cleveland to talk about growing organic asparagus in raised beds with retractable covers, thus lengthening the season by a month. Bosley also holds workshops to train farmers on developing relationships with restaurants-—in the wake of his work, many area chefs are interested in local produce.
“He’s been a big influence,” Anderson says. “Chefs call him, they ask him for advice—if they want to go local and seasonal, they go to him.”
But Bosley’s vision is bigger than just pleasing those at the knife-and-fork end of the food chain. He wants to restore the link between producer and consumer that’s been snapped by corporate agriculture and its many middlemen. And he wants farmers to get a bigger chunk of the consumer’s dollar so that they’ll stay on the land instead of having to sell to developers. All this gets back to the old-fashioned capitalism that Bosley says he loves: Make a better product, aim it at the right market, and you will prosper.
Out in Miller’s fields, some of these products regard us amiably from the little hollows they’ve made in the thick pasture grass. These are five-week-old chicks that have been bred to mature more slowly, with firmer and more flavorful meat, than their commercial counterparts; Bosley urged Miller to order them from a hatchery in Alabama. They live in a capacious wire pen that Miller moves once or twice a day, so they can peck up greens and bugs to supplement their organic feed. He will raise about 400 of them this season, enough to freeze and offer to customers desperate for local organic chicken in the winter.
Bosley, as dapper and cordial in the field as he is when greeting customers at Parker’s, bends down to peer at the chicks. “Would you start giving them a little milk in the next few weeks?” he asks, adjusting the bill of his red cap against the sun. “Even if it sours, they like to pick out the curds. It will sweeten the meat.”
Then he and Miller load his biweekly supply of organic eggs—40 dozen from Miller’s Golden Buff layers—into the back of his Subaru. Some of these will go to the restaurant, some will go to a Cleveland pastry chef who follows the high road of local and organic. And then we’re off along more winding roads, through more small towns, because there are many more farm projects ahead to which Parker Bosley intends to apply his judicious and ever-curious eye.