Originally printed in the April 2020 issue of Produce Business.
[Editor’s note: this article was written shortly before all restaurants in Sacramento were ordered closed for take-out and delivery-only due to the coronavirus.]
“Chef, can I come to the restaurant and interview you for a column I’m writing on spring produce?” I texted. “Sure,” he replied, followed by “Want carbonara?” I couldn’t get to his restaurant fast enough to do this interview.
Chef Patrick Mulvaney and his wife Bobbin own Mulvaney’s B&L, an institution in the Sacramento restaurant scene where the politically powerful gather to discuss issues relevant to our city, our county, and the country. Mulvaney’s B&L, like many fine dining restaurants in the Sacramento region, features farm-to-table California cuisine, but what makes Mulvaney’s menu unique are the not-so-subtle hints of Chef Patrick’s Irish heritage. House smoked salmon with Irish brown bread and all the accompaniments has been on the menu since the day it opened in 2006. And Guinness is always on tap.
I studied the menu while I waited for the chef to appear. “Asparagus soup this early,” I mused. The Del Rio Farms Green Salad is expected; the farm thrives on a unique microclimate along the Sacramento River that supports year-round production, even in the coldest months of the year.
Chef Patrick soon joined me for a leisurely meal and easy-going conversation that started with him excitedly talking about spring produce. “We’re just starting to get great asparagus, thin locally grown spears that satisfy our desire to see some change. Peas and strawberries are next,” he exclaimed with unrestrained exuberance. “March is the beginning of the beautiful cascade of produce,” he mused.
We went on to discuss the ebbs and flows of seasonal sourcing. “Many people think seasonal sourcing is a circle, but for us, it’s an ellipse with longer and shorter periods of availability.” I asked how he and his team think about shoulder seasons. “We try to avoid the shoulders, but there are two exceptions to our rule — asparagus and tomatoes — due to customer demand. People get eager for warmer days and foods that signal a change. It’s a dance of anticipation for us and for them,” he says.
“Chefs are rock stars in our world, but growers are becoming the rock stars. What I hope happens next is that people start celebrating the distributors.”– Patrick Mulvaney, Mulvaney’s B&L
How important is local when it comes to this dance of anticipation, I asked. “We try to source as much local produce as possible, but sometimes the source is California. Baja California,” he says as he winks.
“Tomatoes are king here in the Sacramento Valley, but we don’t get great heirloom tomatoes until July 1 at the earliest, typically after July 4. But we get amazing peaches in June, so when customers start asking in April for tomato and fresh mozzarella salad with pulled-to-order mozzarella, we wait a bit. And then we first offer a peach and mozzarella salad,” he says. “We move into tomatoes when the quality is great. Good is not good enough.”
Is that always true I asked, which opened the door for a discussion of working with new growers. “We get a lot of farmers, especially new farmers training with the Center for Land-Based Learning, who will walk through our front door with something they’ve just harvested. We then start a three-step process in a potential relationship.”
“The first step is the first meeting. We focus on the quality and potential usage,” he says. “The second step involves us closely scrutinizing factors like was the delivery on time and was the quality good. If yes, then we move on to a true partnership with longer term discussions, including their working with a distributor,” he says.
I inquired about the percent of produce purchased through their local produce distributor versus direct from the farmers. “It depends on the time of year, but the majority — 6o to 80 percent — comes through our distributor, Produce Express. More and more growers are seeing value in this relationship,” he says with a smile. “Sure, some growers want to stick with direct sales, but most want to do what they do best — grow great produce and let someone else handle the delivery.”
If you could change one thing about seasonal sourcing, what would that be, I asked. “Chefs are rock stars in our world, but growers are becoming the rock stars. What I hope happens next is that people start celebrating the distributors,” he says with earnest intent. “My distributor works with more farms and farmers than I have time to meet with. I want great quality, selection, and volume that meets our needs. That’s the benefit of the relationship with a trusted distributor.” He pauses a moment and goes on to say, “Restaurateurs are stewards of trust. People trust us to give them good food and a good experience. We, in turn, trust our distributors. I wish I could find more ways to highlight how important the distributors are in keeping the trust of our customers.”
I scooped up the last bite of my carbonara, noting how the heat of the Fresno chiles cut through the velvety richness of the sauce. I then turned my attention to the dessert menu.
Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. She is the director of The Culinary Institute of America Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative. You can learn more about her business at www.farmersdaughterconsulting.com, and you can follow her insights on food and flavor on Twitter @FarmFlavorFun