The term “professional forager” probably won’t be making its way into many career guides in the near future, but it is how Valerie Broussard makes her living. She’s a farming matchmaker of sorts, bringing together local farmers and food artisans with the catering companies and restaurants that serve organic and locally grown ingredients. “I help my clients increase their sourcing of local, sustainable and artisanal foods,” Broussard says.
Broussard’s actual title is food and beverage sourcing and sustainability specialist, but when she was a food buyer for W Austin, someone referred to her as a “forager,” and the word stuck. She’s been the organic food coordinator for Austin’s Barr Mansion, and now she works directly with farmers, restaurants and caterers to connect growers with buyers.
An April 2014 study by the Organic Trade Association showed 81 percent of U.S. families buy organic foods at least occasionally, so it’s no surprise more caterers, hotels and meeting venues are going green with their menu options. It’s a win for chefs, patrons and local farmers.
“A lot of growers don’t realize what the chefs are looking for,” Broussard says. For example, one of her farming clients had a surplus of blackberries and nowhere to send them. Broussard called a local restaurant owner who snapped them up and incorporated them into the menu.
Broussard recommends getting familiar with Texas growing seasons before planning an event, so it’ll be easier to know what menu options are possible. Also, decide whether certified organic or locally grown is more important. Sometimes an organic ingredient is available, but only from California. Or, there may be an abundance of produce available at a local farm, but they haven’t gone through the organic certification process.
“Trust is an important element,” Broussard says. “If you trust a local farmer and you’re familiar with their farming techniques [regarding pesticide use], whether they have the certification or not might not matter as much.” “The whole purpose of farm-to-table,” Broussard explains, “is to bring the freshest, best tasting foods to the table.”
Working with the Land
“Farm-to-table means a lot of things,” says Kristen Stacy, co-owner of Royal Fig Catering in Austin. “Generally it means anything grown within a 100-mile radius.”
Stacy had 10 years of event planning experience before she and her husband, executive chef Dan Stacy, started Royal Fig. Dan Stacy was a chef in restaurants from Houston to New York City to Austin for more than a decade prior to developing menus for Royal Fig.
“Our philosophy is to source locally as much as possible,” Kristen Stacy says. “Not just farms, but our cheeses, everything is from local vendors; we try to keep it within our community.” The keep-it-local philosophy means not everything is going to be certified organic, however. Stacy says they work to find organic and sustainably grown options for clients whenever they have to leave the area. “We’re a gulf state, so obviously we don’t have local salmon here,” she says. “But we do offer salmon, so we’ll get that sustainably from Alaska.”
What does sustainable mean? It’s food that’s grown in a way that doesn’t completely use up or destroy natural resources. In some cases that means rotating crops to replenish mineral levels. For salmon, it can mean repopulating and preserving a natural habitat as much as possible.
Royal Fig establishes a set seasonal menu that clients can choose from. They don’t do a lot of variations from that menu because they know which crops will be available and they’ve developed recipes to make best use of what’s in season.
“Maintain flexibility,” Stacy says of hosting organic and farm-to-table events. “We see what’s coming in from the farm and we create something great, as opposed to trying to force a specific menu item.” It may seem counterintuitive, but this unpredictability actually leads to the most flavorful results.
But Royal Fig has a distinct flavor and style that doesn’t change. “New American,” Stacy calls it. “We have European influences … but we’re known for anything with bacon! We source really good bellies and smoke them ourselves. We spend weeks on our slabs. We do bacon and egg stations … we’ve built a table with a pole over the chef that looks like a French meat market.”
Beyond the Boxed Lunch
“Most planners who come to us are looking for unique break options … they come looking for our juice bar,” says Justo Blanco, who has been a chef for 14 years. His family owns several restaurants in the Dallas area, including Bolsa, a restaurant dedicated to bringing organic, locally grown food to Dallas dinner plates. In 2012, the family expanded the concept and opened Bolsa Mercado, a completely organic and local, sustainably grown catering company.
Bolsa Mercado serves a lot more than juice, but it has become known for breakout session juice bars because of the creativity Blanco puts into juice and baked good pairings. Fresh juice is served alongside baked goods made from locally grown organic oats and freshly ground flours. “We’ve done juices where we set it in wheat grass so it looked like the drink was sprouting from grass,” Blanco says. “We’ll do evening meetings where juice is spiked with alcohol.”
As with other farm-to-table caterers, Blanco emphasizes the importance of flexibility. Menu items are based on local crop yields. If there’s a freeze or event that affects crops, Blanco adjusts to fit what farmers have available. A juice station may feature one fruit juice, one vegetable juice and one herb juice. If there’s an issue with crops on event day, he has multiple recipes so he can quickly adjust and still provide three delicious options no matter what farmers have on hand that day.
“A large percentage of meeting planners are nervous about that the first time because we don’t have that trust established yet,” he explains. “But returning guests are like, ‘we get it,’ and they understand this isn’t a hotel. You’re not going to get the same apple and orange and banana every time.”
Bolsa Mercado offers a standard seasonal catering menu, but Blanco also works with clients to create custom menus, especially for corporate meetings.
“We’re trying to get away from cookie cutter [meeting food]. That’s exactly what I’ve tried not to do. I use terms like ‘eating breaks’ and ‘box lunches’ on our menu—I’m using terms people are used to—but what keeps people coming back is our creativity in what we serve.”
Old is New Again
The world of organic catering isn’t new for Chuck Hernandez. He started his organic catering company, Arugula Catering, in 1984. “When I started it was called natural food,” Hernandez says. “I grew up in Austin, home of Whole Foods and co-ops. The verbiage has changed over the years, but I’ve always sourced locally, driving everywhere to get the freshest ingredients.”
Now based in San Antonio, Hernandez is known well beyond the Texas border. Over the years he has planned organic and locally sourced menus for corporate events across the country. “I’ve been to LA and back, I’ll go anywhere,” he says. “I make sure at least 40 percent of the ingredients come from wherever I’m called to.”
This means Hernandez cultivates contacts with everyone from commercial hunters to local and organic farmers across the country to make sure he’ll have access to the ingredients he needs. Hernandez has made a career of knowing what will be fresh around the time of an event, and what menu items he’ll be able to prepare.
“There were times I’d be out in the desert for a couple of weeks waiting for a hunt to come in,” Hernandez says. This dedication to getting the freshest ingredients available has been key to Arugula’s popularity, but some things have changed.
“For most people at that time, organic catering was a luxury for people who could afford it,” says Hernandez. “Now it’s not luxury as much as it’s about community … it’s a movement. That was me 30 years ago, it just wasn’t an industry like it is today.”
Hernandez acknowledges price is still a factor for people who want to eat organic, or host organic events. His latest commitment is trying to find ways to make organic eating more affordable for the average consumer. He’s currently working on Mercado O’liva, a monthly open-air market in San Antonio, where he brings organic and local food vendors to the public.
Starting a market was a natural extension for Hernandez. Throughout his career, he’s operated Arugula Catering a bit like a pop-up market. He rolls into an event with all the ingredients, linens and place settings, and everything down to the dishes is sustainably sourced.
“Even though organic sounds like a luxury, it’s all sustainable,” Hernandez says. “Catering has matured into a very interesting place … but we’re still the same attraction.”
The Big Picture
Montesino Ranch & Farm isn’t just an organic farm and working ranch that supplies grass-fed beef, eggs and veggies to the public. It’s also an event venue in the middle of Hill Country. Montesino has been featured everywhere from Martha Stewart’s website to Bon Appetit, Southern Living and more wedding blogs than maybe any other Hill Country venue.
What people might not realize is they also host midweek meetings and corporate retreats.
“A lot of people like that we’re a working ranch. They’re searching out the real thing. We get a lot of business for that reason,” says Pam Gayler, ranch manager. The ranch has 225 acres of land and several small studios for guests. The venue is used for corporate retreats and teambuilding exercises. “We can’t sleep a huge event, but we’re a vacation town. We’re within 2 miles of several other B&Bs. People can easily walk or bicycle in for the day.”
Everything served at Montesino comes straight from the ranch and farm. There isn’t a staff chef, but there are a handful of chefs in Wimberley who regularly prepare meals for events held at Montesino.
“We have an outdoor kitchen, or chefs will pick up the food, cook it at their restaurants, then bring it back for the event,” Gayler says. In 2015, the goal is to complete an on-site catering facility that will provide more cooking space for visiting chefs.
Gayler works with guests to find the right local chef if they don’t already have someone in mind. She also creates customized activity plans for guests, like farm tours and horse rides around the grounds. “We have people come in to do yoga, they come in for photography or birding. We have several endangered species on the ranch,” she says.
It doesn’t get more farm-to-table than holding an event on a working ranch. Wimberley is about 45 miles southwest of Austin, making it a convenient option for day-long meetings and overnight retreats. The ranch is about 90 miles northeast of San Antonio, making it a convenient option for either city.
Taking organic farm-to-table one step further, The Inn at Dos Brisas (about an hour and a half from Houston and two hours from Austin) has a 42-acre certified organic farm on the property. A 7,000 square-foot greenhouse provides produce in winter and an orchard and berry patch supply seasonal fruit all summer.
Managing Director Steve Shotsberger has seen a shift toward more corporate group sales. “We’ll have about 22 percent [of business] from group sales in 2015, which is a 10 percent increase over the last five years. I can’t say that’s an industry trend, though. It’s specific to this property because we’ve changed the way we sell groups,” he says.
The Inn now packages events, catering and accommodations into an all-inclusive model. Meetings can still be hosted à la carte, or for one package price the Inn puts together a catering menu and group activities like fishing expeditions, horseback riding, wine tastings, clay shooting, farm tours and cooking classes. There are two meeting rooms with A/V systems and free Wi-Fi throughout the facility.
“A lot of organizations don’t want to go to a traditional hotel,” Shotsberger says. “Everything is custom here. Dietary restrictions are a big deal. Food allergies. Anything we use is grown here. Most everything we serve is organic [all produce and fruit is organic]. We have a farm, we have chickens, everything.”
There are also seasonal menus for guests to choose from. In winter, The Inn’s signature dishes include Pheasant Pot Au Feu, a dish similar to potpie made with braised pheasant and kohlrabi root. Kohlrabi is similar to a turnip and grows well in Texas.
The chefs at Dos Brisas use pressure-cooked sunflower seeds from the garden to create a sort of risotto served with pickled honey crisp apple. A green gazpacho made with uni, sea urchin, and fresh herbs from the greenhouse is also popular with guests.
What's in This Season
Texas supplies a plethora of produce yearround. Here are some top seasonal crops from the Texas Department of Agriculture. Some crops have two growing seasons, such as cantaloupe and honeydew, which are harvested in summer and again in the fall. gotexan.org