How Chef Amy Brandwein Develops Lasting Partnerships with Famers
Flexibility and feedback are the key to Centrolina’s enduring relationship with DC Urban Greens.
When chef Amy Brandwein first started working with DC Urban Greens, an urban farm located in Washington DC’s Ward 7 district, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect from deliveries that she was told might include 40 pounds of collard greens, or 15 pounds of bell peppers. The nonprofit, which supplies the surrounding neighborhood with accessible and affordable produce, had never worked with a chef before, and was founded primarily to serve the residents in the district’s food desert. Four years later, Brandwein’s osteria and market, Centrolina (which will launch a new café, Piccolina, next month), continues to be the farm’s sole restaurant partner, and incorporates two shipments of Urban Greens produce into its menu every single week.
For chefs and restaurateurs looking to develop a similar farm-to-table partnership, Brandwein says it’s important to understand that these relationships can’t bloom overnight, and definitely won’t happen simply by idly surfing the Internet or poking around on social media. “Go to your local farmer’s market. Once people see you’re willing to work with them, farmers know other farmers, and they can connect you,” she says. “Just get out in your community.”
While chefs often have strong ideas about what they’d like a dish to look like––basil pesto, or butternut squash ravioli, for example––Brandwein says that flexibility is an absolute priority when partnering with an organization like DC Urban Greens. “When people know that you’re amenable to being flexible with what you recieve and going with the flow a little bit, you’ll have more people reach out and want to work with you,” she says. “Farmers are just like us, they’re working and creating food, and they need flexibility on our part in order to sell. You need to prioritize the relationship and the quality of the food over any specific dish that you want to do.”
On a recent trip to the Urban Greens farm, a 20 minute drive from Centrolina, founder Julie Kirkwood expressed her surprise when Brandwein asked for a shipment of squash blossoms, which she discovered in full bloom behind a few rows of kale and collard greens. The rest of the farm staff, like Taboris, who serves as distribution coordinator, and Annie, Urban Greens’ community outreach director, say they’ve learned a lot about using parts of the vegetables they grow on the farm in unexpected ways, like carrot tops, which often serve as a base for the pesto at Centrolina.
At the restaurant’s bi-annual harvest dinners, that same spirit of experimentation might manifest in a bright beef carpaccio garnished with beet leaves, or in fluffy triangoli stuffed to the brim with fresh charred chard and sweet potato. Spring is the easiest time of year to incorporate the Urban Greens delivery into her menu, but in the winter months, Brandwein says cold weather force her and her cooks to get creative. “I always try to think about how many different ways I can cook one vegetable,” she says. “You look at a turnip or look at a beet in a different way. It’s a very exciting process actually because it makes you bend your mind.”
Although the Centrolina team prides itself on being adept enough to roll with the punches and find ways to use or preserve their weekly produce deliveries, Brandwein maintains that it’s still important to share feedback with farmers and not confuse communication for conflict. “If you say, “I love this goat cheese, but can you get it to me young and fluffy?’, chances are they can. The relationship starts out with one thing, and through good old fashioned talking, it expands to so much more.”