Speak to any chef, and you’ll quickly discover that fine cuisine is part art, part science, but that the most essential part is quality ingredients.
All chefs have their secrets for sourcing the freshest, most innovative and flavorful components to go into their signature dishes, and we followed the chefs from four of the Gulfshore’s most compelling restaurants to see exactly how they do it.
In the fields of Farmer Mike’s U Pick in Bonita Springs, Chef Asif Syed of 21 Spices in Naples kneels down beside a row of strawberry plants. He selects a single bright red strawberry, dusts it on his chef’s jacket, places it in his mouth and chews thoughtfully.
“We are so used to supermarkets,” he says. “We are so used to going and buying stuff that we forget we still need to take our time to go back to nature.”
The sky is a watercolor blue with soft white clouds scudding across its surface. A breeze blows across the fields, nearly the only sound except for a chainsaw at the next farm over and the distant—very distant—thrum of cars on the highway.
“A lot of people don’t know what is in Naples, Immokalee, Bonita,” Syed says. “They’re like, ‘What farm? Where?’ Even me, I was like, ‘Where?’”
Now Syed does his special-occasion shopping at the farm, like when he has a wedding or big event to cater.
“If there is a wedding, I come personally to pick my own edible flowers,” he says. “I’m very picky when I do stuff.”
And if he can’t come?
“I give precise instructions, especially if I need some berries. I know exactly how ripe the strawberry needs to be.”
Syed is equally choosy when it comes to his tomatoes.
“Chicken tikka masala requires three different kinds of tomatoes,” he says, numbering them on his fingers. “Roma, cherry and regular soft tomatoes—beefsteak. They have to be very soft for the sauce. The combination adds a very good flavor and makes it unique.”
He stands for a moment with his hands on his hips, surveying the fields.
“See those cherry tomatoes?” he says. “Unbelievable. Every tomato has a different flavor, different sweetness, different acidity. When you combine them in salads and sauces, it creates the magic.”
He walks to the next row over and crouches down to run his hand over a sage plant.
“The joy of cooking is that you need to know from where the ingredients start, where it begins and where it ends. It can’t get fresher than this.”
When he’s finished in the fields—finished sampling the strawberries and tomatoes, finished admiring the flowers—he walks over to the farm stand.
“Let’s do some shopping,” he says, picking up a basket.
The stand is stocked with produce—spaghetti squash, butternut squash, white pumpkins, gourds, shallots, sweet onions, garlic, heirloom tomatoes, artichokes, beets, parsnips, turnips, bok choy, cauliflower, bib lettuce, fennel, oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil and cilantro. Syed pauses to admire a bin of okra.
“Fresh okra is fantastic,” he says. “Out of this world.”
He stops a woman who works in the farm stand and asks, “When does the okra come in?”
“Every day something is coming out of the fields,” she says.
Syed inspects more produce—cucumbers, eggplants, green beans, red cabbage—and loads his shopping basket with more strawberries and cherry tomatoes. He bends down to look closer at a collection of flower bouquets picked on the farm.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” he says.
He selects one of the bundles of flowers and adds it to his basket, looking very pleased.
“For me, this is all great,” he says.
Chef Jack Raben is waiting outside the Bravo supermarket in south Naples, not far from Naples Botanical Garden where he’s the executive chef of Fogg Cafe and Lurcat Catering. He’s wearing a black polo shirt, gray chinos and a pair of cool-looking dark sunglasses. Known for his inventive takes on American and international cuisine, Raben is drawn to flavors and textures that are off the beaten path.
“This is a great store,” he says as the market’s doors slide open. “It’s become a huge resource for us. We can get things that take two to three days to get from suppliers. And a lot of this stuff is hard to source down here from purveyors. If you do, you have to buy a 50-pound case.”
Inside the front doors sits a vegetable stand filled with yellow bananas, calabaza squash, limes, tomatoes and green papayas. Behind it, bins of dried chiles—papilla, ancho, morita, arbol, pulla, guajillo—hibiscus flowers and sesame seeds.
“I thought this was just a store the first time I came in here,” Raben says. “Then I was like, ‘Whoa.’”
He walks down the first aisle, past more produce and a refrigerated container stocked with fresh pico de gallo and chimichurri.
“What are these?” Raben says, picking up a piece of citrus, yellow and green, bigger than a lime but smaller than an orange. “I don’t even know. Limequats?”
He strolls a little farther. There are more bins of produce—purple sweet potatoes, yucca, malanga, yams, cactus paddles, sour oranges, tomatillos, serrano peppers.
“A lot of times, if I get stuck on menus, I’ll come here and then go back,” Raben says.
He stands with his hands on his hips in front of a seafood case admiring the rows of whole snapper, kingfish and brightly colored parrot fish. He selects two snappers and has the man behind the counter wrap them up. Around him, people move past speaking in Spanish and Haitian Creole.
“It’s so cool to look in people’s shopping carts,” Raben says as he casually peers into a cart as it rolls by.
After the fish, he turns down an aisle lined with spices—star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, bay leaves, allspice.
“This is a good aisle,” Raben says. He reaches for a jar of blended lime and chili seasoning. “We use this in our cafe with Mexican street corn, elote. We cut ours with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos because it makes it red and gives it some crunch.”
He reaches for a jar of green hot sauce and then adds a second Caribbean blend. “It’s fun to shop here every once in a while to get stuff for your cupboard you wouldn’t normally have. We’re hot sauce collectors in my kitchen.”
From the spice aisle, he goes to the other end of the store where there are 20-pound bags of rice and beans. There’s a freezer container that has frozen bananas leaves—“It’s good to know they have banana leaves here,” Raben says—and packages of grated cassava. In another frozen section, pallets of exotic fruit purees like tamarind, guava and mamey are lined up.
“These are really cool,” Raben says, picking up a package of the pureed mamey. “It’s almost like a sweet potato, guava and brown sugar all mixed together.” He puts the pallet in his cart. “I get a lot of these fruits in season from the gardens.”
He’s almost to the end of the aisle, and he’s covered nearly the entire store. Raben takes a moment to admire the rows of cheeses.
“There’s great cheese here,” he says, tapping the packages and naming their countries of origin. “El Salvador, Honduras. I love these cheeses. They’re so different from what you find in the Midwest or Vermont. The sweetness varies, the cream content varies. They’re great for quesadillas, nachos—whatever you want to melt cheese over.”
He moves toward the registers and ticks off a list on his fingers, naming the items in his cart. “Chiles for the kitchen, snapper to grill later, hot sauce.” He nods, satisfied. “I think we got it all.”
At 9 a.m. on a cool Saturday morning, the Cape Coral Farmers Market is already up and running. Ben Voisin and Fabrice Deletrain, chefs at Fathoms in Cape Harbour and the recently opened Gather at Tarpon Point, stroll in looking every bit like young Frenchmen at the helm of two of Southwest Florida’s hippest eateries.
“We’re used to these big markets back home in France,” Deletrain says, “but it’s quieter here. You don’t have the fish guy going, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”
There’s a steel drum player at this market—perhaps also different from France—along with food trucks, vegetable vendors, cheese mongers, fish sellers, bakers and nurserymen. The two chefs amble through the market, taking it all in. In addition to Fathoms and Gather, plus a more casual sandwich and coffee shop in Cape Harbour called The French Press and their boutique catering company Black Salt, the two men also host monthly chefs’ dinners. These seven-course upscale culinary experiences are limited to 18 seats and give the pair a chance to showcase their talents outside of the usual restaurant menus. Places like the Cape Coral Farmers Market are their key for inspiration.
“We try to find interesting ingredients that people haven’t seen before,” Deletrain says. “In two years of doing the chefs’ dinner, we haven’t repeated anything. Venison loin, Chilean sea bass, goat cheese truffle, striped candy beets—we do a beautiful menu.”
At a fruit and vegetable stand, Voisin stops and thoughtfully squeezes an avocado before tasting a slice of sweet honeydew. At the next stand over, he picks up a grapefruit.
“Pamplemousse?” Deletrain asks him.
“Oui, c’est petite.”
There are slices of red grapefruit on a tray, and Voisin picks one up carefully. He brings it to his nose and inhales slowly before taking a bite. The two continue walking but stop again in front of a vendor selling olive oils and vinegars. They reach for cubes of bread and dip them in one of the sample cups of olive oil infused with hot peppers.
“La vache, it’s spicy,” Voisin says. “Spicy but good.”
Deletrain coughs. “Merde.”
Farther along they meet their bread vendor, a man who makes a crispy lavosh that the chefs use to accompany their tuna tartare and other dishes. They stop for a quick hello, and some of the restaurants’ regulars pass by and say good morning.
“I love plants,” Voisin says at a table of potted herbs. “We love to cook with herbs. I really love lemongrass—for Gather we do a pork shoulder with lemongrass, soy, ginger and hoisin.”
“I love cilantro,” Deletrain says.
“For him, it’s cilantro in everything,” Voisin says.
“We buy live microgreens where they bring you the tray and you cut it when you’re ready,” Deletrain explains. “Pea shoots, wasabi, microcilantro.”
Voisin cups his hand around a nasturtium on the table. “Right now, they’re starting to do these.”
“It looks like—” Deletrain searches for the word, and they go back in forth in French until he finds it. “A lily pad.”
The two chefs are nearing the end of their circuit. They pass a cheese seller with coolers of fresh mozzarella—“Mmm, c’est belle là,” Deletrain says—and lean in to inspect rows of shiitake, crimini, oyster and portobello mushrooms at the next stand. The chefs source as much of their ingredients locally as they can, bringing honey from Circle C Farm in Felda and produce from Oakes Farms in Immokalee, but the farmers market is for special treats.
“This is where we buy our goodies,” Voisin says.
Deletrain laughs. “Shhh, don’t tell anyone.”
Alas, it’s too late for that. The secret’s out on this and the other spots frequented by some of our area’s finest chefs, and now the next time we lay-cooks are in need of dried chiles, fresh-picked strawberries or flavored olive oil, we’ll know where to go. And we’ll be on the lookout for chefs in plain clothes.