Chef of the Month program makes connections

Photos by Rocky Womack Unless Otherwise Noted.
During Tasty Saturdays at the farmers’ market, Chefs of the Month prepare foods such as salads using products grown by local farmers.

Commercial vegetable and fruit growers in the Martinsville, Va., area have another option to market their produce and encourage healthy eating. They supply fresh produce to food preparers who participate in the Chef of the Month demonstrations held during Tasty Saturdays from May through November.

Tasty Saturdays, held at the Uptown Martinsville Farmers’ Market at the corners of Church, Main and Moss streets, feature music with a live band while a chef prepares delicious and creative treats for onlookers.

Professionals and food lovers are invited to serve as a Chef of the Month. “We try to ask uptown restaurant owners first, since the market is an economic restructuring tool of our agency, the Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association,” says Executive Director Susan McCulloch. She started Tasty Saturdays in May 2006 in conjunction with Plant Day.

Buy fresh

Chefs of the Month prepare most of their meals using vegetables and fruits from local farmers. For instance, the chefs may open up a bag of fresh lettuce from Frank and Angela Benz of Sunny Acres Farm in Patrick Springs, Va., or mix in a few organic tomatoes from Ingrid and Owen Caldwell from Patrick Springs. McCulloch encourages the chefs to prepare their foods using the local produce.

“The Chef of the Month program gives people ideas on shopping for multiple ingredients at the market so they do not have to use the grocery store for everything; plus, market shoppers can learn how to cook using fresh ingredients that are in season,” she says.

McCulloch says that shoppers can purchase eggs from Junior and Sharon Wilson of Axton; basil and oregano plants from the Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program; tomatoes from Clyde Lester of Axton; peppers from Thomas Trent of Patrick Springs; potatoes from James Watkins of Ridgeway; and baked apple bread or strawberry Bundt from the state-certified kitchen of Angela Benz of Patrick Springs. They can use these ingredients to prepare breakfast omelets with side dishes of baked potato wedges and apple bread.

Tasty Saturdays benefit local producers, because “shoppers have connected cooking healthy, local (fresh and energy-saving) and supporting farmers with the Chef of the Month program,” McCulloch says.

Frank Benz, a vegetable and fruit grower from Patrick Springs, Va., shows his packaged homegrown lettuce to Susan McCulloch, executive director of the Martinsville Uptown Revitalization Association in Martinsville, Va. McCulloch started Tasty Saturdays, featuring a Chef of the Month at the local farmers’ market, to help growers market more of their produce and encourage healthier eating.

“I think it’s good that the chef prepares food [that is] in season, and that it is locally grown,” Frank Benz says. “It’s nice to have the chef there, and he prepares food and lets people taste it. That brings more people together and shows them the different varieties of dishes they can prepare.” He adds that the Chef of the Month introduces people to fresh, pesticide-free, low-calorie and health-conscious foods.

Oftentimes, McCulloch says that onlookers ask for the chefs’ recipes and go home to prepare the same dishes themselves.

Attracting more customers

The Chef of the Month program, farmers’ market and the handing out of heart-healthy recipes from the Coalition for Health and Wellness help draw in tourism, especially epicureans who travel across the country searching for the tastiest food, wine, recipes and cultural experiences of a particular region.

“The epicurean tourist is typically a more educated and affluent leisure traveler,” says David Rotenizer, director of tourism with the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. in Martinsville.

“A recent study by Clemson University seeking to segment agritourists found that experiential tourists are becoming as likely as locals to participate in farmers’ markets and festivals,” Rotenizer says. “Many visitors are day or weekend-trippers. They travel a short distance of less than two to three hours.”

Frank Benz has noticed a big difference in traffic at the farmers’ market since the Chef of the Month program was implemented.

When he started participating as a vendor four years ago during the end of the growing season, Benz says he and his wife were lucky to sell about $70 worth of produce and other items on a Saturday. Today, he estimates sales have increased about 300 percent, mainly due to good advertising of the farmers’ market by McCulloch, Tasty Saturdays and the Chef of the Month program.

“People know we are here now and are going to start coming more and more,” Benz says. “Our produce is fresher. Everything is ripe when you bring it to the market. Everything tastes so much better if it’s fresh.”

Loyal customers of the vendors at the Uptown Martinsville Farmers’ Market can’t wait to buy. Ingrid Caldwell, a vendor and market manager, says customers arrive early to purchase fresh produce. Usually, vendors sell most of their produce by 9 or 10 a.m., she says, and they could sell more if they had it.

Photo courtesy of the Martinsville-Henry County Office of Tourism.
As a Chef of the Month, Jennifer Eskew of Arts Etc. & Cafe in Martinsville, Va., prepares a meal with vegetables from local growers at the farmers’ market.
Melanie Barrow, the horticultural agent and unit coordinator of the Henry County/Martinsville office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, prepares a lettuce and edible flower salad while serving as a Chef of the Month at the Uptown Martinsville Farmers’ Market. Serving as a chef allows her to spread the word about what extension does.

Participating food preparers

Since the event started, several local chefs have participated. Melanie Barrow, the horticultural agent and unit coordinator of the Henry County/Martinsville office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service in Collinsville, Va., has demonstrated her culinary skills as a Chef of the Month. While a small crowd watches, she prepares a fresh garden salad, made with edible roses and violas, and a pie.

Barrow gladly serves as a Chef of the Month. “A lot of people don’t understand what extension does,” she says. “They do 4-H, but they don’t realize it’s extension. They know the old homemakers, but they don’t realize it’s extension. They know they can call someone when they have plant problems, but they don’t know it’s extension. So, this gives us an opportunity to get our name out, let people know what services we offer and that sometimes we’re not always business, we’re fun, too.”

Chefs of the Month must prepare their meals at the farmers’ market, with an exception. McCulloch said portions they need to prepare ahead must be done in a kitchen approved by the health department. They are required to wear gloves, follow food preparation rules stipulated by the local health department and are allowed to bring a portable skillet or grill.

Many other food preparers have participated as a Chef of the Month. On Plant Day, Elizabeth DeVault, a trained chef, demonstrated how to transform vegetables into centerpieces, preparing beehive honey butter, marinated green beans, roasted red peppers and strawberry shortcake.

On Herb Day, Susan Critz, of Susan Critz Catering in uptown Martinsville, prepared deviled eggs with goat cheese; rice with fresh herbs; a goat cheese ball with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and chives; and bruschetta.

On Veggie Day, Jennifer Eskew, Arts Etc. & Café in uptown Martinsville, fixed panzanella; chilled fresh blueberry soup; and roasted corn, potato and blue cheese salad.

During the Kids’ Fun Fest, Beverly Rakes, Martinsville-Henry County Coalition for Health and Wellness, made strawberry-mango smoothies.

On Honey Day, Eydie Clifton from Reynolds Homestead in Critz, Va., prepared apple quesadillas, chocolate raspberry silk pie and pumpkin cookies, all sweetened with honey.

On Harvest Day, prize-winning chef Annelle Williams cooked pork chops with apple chutney. The pork chops came from Sandy River Pork farm in Axton, Va. She has also prepared ribollita, pumpkin bread pudding and caramel corn.

Ingrid Caldwell, market manager of the Uptown Martinsville Farmers’ Market and a farmer vendor, says customers arrive early to buy fresh produce from local farmers.

On Comfort Food Day, Rob Pigford of Theme Cuisine grilled pizzas with various toppings of boneless chicken with barbecue sauce, mushrooms and provolone; pesto, tomato and mozzarella; and prosciutto, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. He has also prepared yeasted sourdough rolls, chicken stew with chorizo and macaroni and cheese.

Bonnie Hale, Binding Time café, presented some Christmas holiday treats of blueberry muffins and chocolate chip scones prepared at Hale’s bakery.

From the menu of the Beggars and Chewsers Café at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Hale has fixed cheese tail chasers and banana oat woofles for the canines.

The program has been a success, and McCulloch hopes to expand in the future by acquiring a kitchen station for the market. “The Chef of the Month feature of our Tasty Saturdays has been something that the whole community seems to enjoy,” McCulloch says. “We love this feature, since it enhances our terrific market.”

The author is a freelance writer in Danville, Va.