"I value the relationships that I have with farmers and producers much more than the quality of any individual thing that I buy."
June 30th, 2011

Kate Galassi Forager

Kate Galassi is the head food buyer at Compose in New York City. She calls herself a forager, and as the name might suggest, it's a job very much in touch with its humble and hands-on lineage. In the jungle of high-end restaurants though, it's increasingly serious business too. Foraging of the kind that Kate does is also new territory in the larger working world, which is why we were so excited to talk to her. We also like food, and we'll warn you: this interview may make you hungry.

What’s in season right now that you have to have?

Spring has arrived at the market, and I’m drawn to things like garlic scapes, the flower stalk of the plant, which is sweet and garlicky and wonderful; strawberries, specifically a wonderful variety called the tristar that just came into season today;  all kinds of wild greens — dandelion, watercress, nettles; and a million varieties of radishes — pink beauty, french breakfast, ping pong, white icicle, helios, and my favorite, shunkyo. The other thing I’m going crazy with right now are herbs. My bartenders use all kinds of amazing herbs: savory, purple shiso, pineapple sage, flowering thyme, lovage, chamomile flowers, wild ginger and chocolate mint.

Is seasonality a principle you seek to emphasize most at Compose? Or does sheer flavor rule out?

The most important quality is flavor, and a lot of my time is spent tasting. I’ll get to the market and taste english peas from four or five different farms and then buy the sweetest peas. That’s just about the best part of my job — tasting things and talking with farmers. Learning about different varieties is also hugely important. For example, knowing which varieties of mustard are my favorite — ruby streaks and golden frill — and who grows them.

What about things like proximity or organic certification?

I work with farms that are as close as Queens and as far away as California. Some are organic and some spray occasionally; there are tiny farms with only a couple of acres, and some that are huge with 1500 acres. Some farmers I talk to every week, and others I’ve met only once or never at all. But all of them have integrity, which means different things for different farms. It means only harvesting 50 percent of the ramp flowers, leaving to rest to replenish the forest. And waiting to pick fruit when it is fully ripe, even if it means showing up at market without fruit one day. Or calling me at 9pm to tell me the trout aren’t big enough to send to market.

My job, at it’s most fundamental, is having the knowledge that I need to know the signs of integrity. So while flavor may rule at the end of the day, the philosophy that most guides my foraging is one of trust and intuition. I value the relationships that I have with farmers and producers much more than the quality of any individual thing that I buy. Sometimes I might ask a dozen questions about how something is grown, when it was shipped to the slaughterhouse, and what breed or variety it is. And sometimes I’ll smell a bunch of black mint, and I know that I don’t need to ask any questions.

Do you consult with the head chef each morning about the menu and what kinds of food to look out for?

In many ways my life revolves around my relationship with the chef, and the creative control for any given dish always stays firmly in his hands. I’ve developed an order sheet which he will fill out at the end of each prep day, before service begins. That’s my blueprint for orders and buying the next day. Often, he’ll text me at the end of service, around 1 or 2am, to tell me he ran out of something. Then in the morning as I’m shopping, I’ll call or text him with questions, or any particular finds. It takes a number of months before I really know a chef’s tastes, so I try and gather as much information as I can right off the bat. Many chefs have things that they love or hate: edible flowers, baby vegetables, Asian ingredients, spicy greens, anise-flavored things like fennel and lovage. Once we’ve covered the basics, I’m looking at the world partly through the preferences of my chef and partly with my own instincts.

Do you think this method of collaboration will fundamentally change the way restaurants buy and source food?

The shift away from chef as master towards a collaboration between kitchen and farm has absolutely, permanently changed the way we think about food in this country. But it might be a stretch to say that all of these changes can be attributed to chefs buying local food. I have come to believe deeply that what happens in restaurants shapes the way we eat. We are a country of people who love to eat at restaurants. Because of that, nearly all of our food trends come from those restaurants. It was chefs who put ramps and sunchokes on their menus and thereby introduced them to their customers. Now at the farmers’ markets, ramps and sunchokes are no longer unknown entities, but familiar vegetables. Furthermore, many farmers would not be able to sustain their presence at market were it not for restaurants. At Union Square in New York City, for example, some farmers gather as much as 70 percent of their income from restaurants on any given day. And during the winter, when there is a foot of snow on the ground, or during torrential rain storms, while many folks stay home and skip the market, restaurants will still show up to pick up their order.

What are the implications of this relationship, both for restaurants large and small, and in cities large and small?

In many ways, it is easier to see the effects of this collaboration on the West Coast, where farmers and chefs have been working together for decades. Local food there has found it’s way not just into co-ops, but regular grocery stores and tiny corner stores. Farm names are not just listed on the menus of the most trendy restaurants, but also at little neighborhood spots. Belonging to a CSA is no longer stylish; it’s completely normal. But right now, in New York, if a chef is committed to using food from local farms, it takes a lot of time and effort — that’s why I have a job. As more and more farms and distributors see that there is a market for local food, it will become easier and easier for restaurants to get it. Whereas now, you need to be at the market at 7:30am to talk directly with farmers and pick up your berries and asparagus, soon you’ll be able to call a distributor and leave a message and have whatever you need delivered the next day. Again, all of this has already happened on the West Coast. Using “local” food has become easy. But it is no longer the same “local” food as when people had to go to the market. If you aren’t buying it directly from the farm, you don’t know if it was picked yesterday or a week ago. You don’t know if they spray pesticides and use synthetic fertilizers; you may not even know the name of the farm who grew your produce. So the new issue, which is true in California and will be soon in New York, becomes about presenting information. It used to be enough to ask, “Is it organic?” or “Is it local?” The new challenge for restaurants who are truly committed to sustainable, traceable food is how to tell the story. There are websites and magazines and journalists and farmers’ markets who are all tackling this issue, and for me, it’s importance is paramount. People have been taught to care where their food comes from, but how do you teach them to know when a restaurant is buying with integrity versus when a restaurant is buying “local” to be a part of the trend?

Has what we eat become more than just what we eat? Food is ideally the conduit into a larger heritage of storytelling, relationship building, and tradition-sharing. But if it’s now an “issue,” with devoted websites and magazines, aren’t we missing the point?

There are a lot of people in the local food movement who are champions of the political story behind food — and they do a tremendous amount of good work — but for me it is all about the joy. Caring about the source of your food shouldn’t be something that you do separately from the cooking and eating of a meal; it should be completely integrated. I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy, some of it working on a farm in the Marche. My friends Paolo and Bini basically eat the food that they grow and raise, with some essentials — fruit, wine, olive oil — from friends. When they do go into town to buy milk or a chunk of parmigiano, it’s not an onerous trip, even though it is an hour round-trip, but a welcome jaunt into town. The whole day is built around time at the table. A break in the middle of the hot day is for a relaxing lunch. Dinner is a way to wind down, talk about what we accomplished, plan for the next day, taste some of the new harvest. Food is not the goal, but the means to living life. Everything that I do in my job in New York is to try and make that philosophy a possibility here.

But being that this is hectic, trend-obsessed New York, do you still wonder how invested customers are with the food they’re about to eat and the people they’re eating with?

Most of the time this goal of food as pleasure feels like an uphill battle. I understand that. Food is politics and economics and bureaucracy in New York. It very rarely feels like a joy. But when I spot someone sitting at the bar talking with one of our bartenders, learning about the lovage in their drink or the rangpur limes from a small farm in California — when the total craziness of New York fades away for a magical moment made possible only by beautiful ingredients — I think people understand what I’m trying to do and why I wouldn’t want to have any other job in the world.