Keeping It Fresh: Trip to the Downtown Farmers Market

“Here we are; this is my happy place.”

 On an unseasonably hot Tuesday morning in late September, Chef Jae Longo, SKY Armory’s Chef de Cuisine, and I arrive at the Downtown Farmers Market in Clinton Square. I’ve tagged along to talk with him about SKY’s farm-to-table philosophy--which is unique for a banquet-style event facility in the Syracuse area--and watch and learn as he shops for the fresh produce he will use in his menus.

We start perusing the farmers’ tables and Chef tells me what he’s looking for and why he likes the weekly market so much. “I’m sad that it’s ending [for the year], because it’s amazing to have all of this only a few blocks away and everything is home-grown, organic, no chemicals,” he says. He plans to continue buying fresh produce on Saturdays at the CNY Regional Market.

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Chef has been taking notes when he visits, asking farmers about what time of year certain fruits and veggies will be in season, so that he has a working “cheat sheet” as he plans menus for events that are months ahead. He points out a few farms that he says are his favorite and which farmers provide him with useful knowledge. “This is what I’ve always done,” he says. “Before farm-to-table became a thing. Cook what you’ve got. What’s the point of writing a menu if you don’t know what the stuff is? Better to know what you’re working with and then write a menu.” He typically shops the farmers market for his own family, too.

He spends time talking to one farmer selling an array of hot peppers. Chef Jae is trying to source peppers for a December 31 wedding. He and the farmer discuss how late in the season he might be able to get the last crop, providing there’s no frost, and how to best store them for a month so they stay fresh. Chef gives the farmer his number so they can stay in contact through the fall.

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As we walk, Chef’s eyes scan the rainbow of colors on each table, getting excited as he spots things he needs to check off his list. For a large wedding taking place this coming weekend, Chef buys one farmer out of all of her asparagus. He detours when he sees fresh figs and buys a pint. He picks up fresh dill with its lacy yellow foliage and we take in the scent; he buys it to use in Borscht. He purchases a variety of plums for our pastry chef Anne to use on fruit pizzas for a corporate event. We miss getting requested berries, because those are one of the first things to go early in the morning, but we find Russian Kale, which will add authentic flavor to the Borscht. “That’s going to be perfect,” he says as he tastes it.

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He also has to keep an eye on costs as he shops, determining whether to buy a crate of something or pick it up in smaller quantities. He brings the menus for three weeks-worth of events with him so he can double-check his notes as he thinks about immediate needs as well as future events.

As we walk back down South Salina Street with a full cart, Chef Jae shares that he wants to start a rooftop garden at SKY. It would be great to grow fresh herbs in house. Chef mentions that he also goes to the fish market frequently to find the freshest catch for dishes and find out what will be available in the future. Thinking this way is SKY’s food philosophy in action – to always have the freshest ingredients and to support the community as often as possible.

 

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Amy Bleier Long

Written by Amy Bleier Long