Chefs, farmers and eaters

Chatting with Feeders: Joshua McFadden, Ava Genes

Talking community, inspiration, food and farming with members of The Collective.


I met up with chef Joshua McFadden of Ava Genes last week to talk about farmers, growing greens in the winter and food distribution in Portland.

Who are your go-to farmers for Ava Genes?
Anthony Boutard from Ayers Creek Farm for sure. I will buy anything that Anthony grows. He’s amazing. Also, DeNoble Farm. I love a lot of what they do. I have also really be enjoying working with Our Table Cooperative.

What sort of ingredients are you sourcing from them right now?
Lots of fall stuff, like pumpkins, squash, beets, chicories, dried beans, dried corn and storage vegetables. Plus broccoli, cauliflower and kale. There’s actually a lot more than people think is available right now. Of course it’s not as abundant as it is in the summer. But in some ways it is easier, because there’s not as much. Summer can get a little overwhelming.

Do you find that there’s enough around that you can be picky about what you’re sourcing from who?
Yeah, like we have beets on the menu right now and I definitely know who I can get the best beets from.

Who are you getting beets from right now then?
Gathering Together has really nice beets, as does Prairie Creek. But I actually had one of the best beets of my life the other day from Stargazer Farm. And it was random because the farmer didn’t think they were going to be good, because they froze, like a pretty deep freeze. They were these beautiful white beets and they were so sweet.

“We’re working with things that are available in our community and that’s what dictates what we use.
I don’t find that to be limiting, I find that to be structuring.”

Do you ever find it to be limiting to just source local ingredients?
Not at all, that’s just the food you should be using. And if you don’t think of it as a limitation, you can really do a lot. We’re working with things that are available in our community and that’s what dictates what we use. I don’t find that to be limiting, I find that to be structuring. It’s a great way to focus.
I do think that there are too many farmers growing the same things. They’re trying to grow the supermarket instead of trying to grow something for the supermarket. It would be better for them to specialize more.
I think we’re getting closer to that model, but I guarantee you that there are more things that we could be growing year round in Oregon right now that’s not happening.

Like what?
Like we could have some of the best greens ever. I don’t know why more farmers aren’t using hoop houses and row covers. I spent time at Four Season Farm in Maine and come from the mindset that a lot more could be done. I’ve seen it work. There could be a lot more available and it’s just not as available as I’d like it to be.

We have some amazing greens on the farm in Salem right now actually. The guys have a system set up where they have some smaller row covers inside of the big hoop house that they built this summer.
Yes! That’s the best. It’s a very cool process. It’s such a win to be able to harvest that stuff. Like what Eliot Coleman [Four Season Farm] always used to say, it’s totally realistic to be able to harvest beautiful greens in the middle of the winter.

How do you get price lists and communicate with the farmers?
Email. Pretty much exclusively email. They send out weekly price lists for us to look at.

Do you think that’s the most efficient way that can be done?
At this point, yes. I think one of the things that is missing in a lot of cities and definitely in Portland is having some kind of hub where everything could go. Although, that sounds good as an idea, but it might not necessarily make it better for the quality, especially from a restaurant standpoint. Like we were just talking about the beets, I want to be able to choose specifically where my beets are coming from. Part of the reason I’m sourcing directly from farms is because I don’t want to be ordering off of some random price list.

That is something I’m interested in around here: how ingredients are moving around, how chefs are getting them. I met with Gregory Gourdet from Departure a couple of weeks ago and he was telling me about Eat Oregon First.
Yes, they’re great, we get a lot from them actually. They pretty much just do meats, chicken and duck eggs and dairy.

So is Eat Oregon First distributing products from other farms as well? Or just their own?
Yes, they’re getting products from other farms too. They’re kind of like a collective.
They’re actually one of the farms that I looked up and went to visit when I first got here. Scot and Hannah are great people and they do a lot of good stuff.
The beef program they have with Urban Farmer is amazing too. Chef Matt is working closely with Scot on this one breed and optimizing its culinary qualities. That level of specificity and communication leads to better food. And I think that goes along with what Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network is doing too, bringing together breeders and seeders with the chefs and eaters. It all makes sense.

Tell me about the dinners you’ve been doing at Our Table Cooperative.
Yeah, those have been great. I’ve gone out there six times now, for farm dinners. It’s always nice when you can just get closer to the source. Narendra is just a really great human being, and Josh and everyone there are doing such great stuff. It’s a really cool project. It’s a great example of what’s possible.
The dinners are nice and simple. They have a commercial kitchen now that we can use. So now we can just work out of the kitchen and have the grill outside. I want to keep doing the dinners and bring more friends out to work and collaborate with.
I just really enjoy working with Narendra. That’s what makes it rewarding, the relationship with him and the farm.

Of course, that’s what it always comes down to, is those relationships, right?
Yes, definitely.

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