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Chefs use Alaska farmers markets to boost local produce

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Posted: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 12:14 am | Updated: 1:27 pm, Wed Apr 10, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — On a busy June afternoon at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market, among booths selling radishes, cookies, honey and artwork, one vendor attracted extra attention without really trying. The crowds were drawn to a new interactive exhibit called “Chefs at the Market.”

Knife in hand and food processor whirring, local chef Chuck Lemke reeled in passersby as he prepared bruschetta. Not only was there a chance to watch a chef at work, but there were free samples to try.

Mixing basil, pine nuts, garlic, lime juice and olive oil, Lemke spread the pesto on slices of baguette, added tomatoes and parmesan cheese and served it up with a smile.

A new program sponsored by the Alaska Division of Agriculture, Chefs at the Market was created to bring attention and additional customers to farmers markets as well as teach consumers new ways to cook and prepare Alaska-grown specialty crops, said Kristi Krueger, a Division of Agriculture project assistant.

Funded by a USDA Specialty Crop block grant, Chefs at the Market is paying $15,000 to chefs this summer to prepare on-site food at various markets around the state. In Fairbanks, the Tanana Valley Farmers Market is featuring local chefs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays, and the Downtown Market is highlighting restaurant owners from 5-7 p.m. Mondays.

“We hope we see a boost in industry sales for the farmers markets that directly benefit local farmers,” Krueger said. “And of course we want to give people the opportunity to talk to chefs around the state and pick up on new techniques on how to prepare Alaska-grown produce. Connecting farmers and buyers to food that is closer, fresher, better is one of the goals for the marketing team at the Division of Agriculture.”

The Midnight Sun Chefs Association and the culinary arts club at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College offered to man the booths at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market, with the money they receive going to scholarships.

Lemke, president of the chefs association, said his organization wanted to help students and reach out to the public at the same time. As the summer goes on, the chefs will be able to incorporate more locally grown food, Lemke said. He was able to use basil grown at a local farm in his pesto, and was so excited about it he was fairly gushing.

“It’s wonderful and versatile,” he said.

Pesto makes a wonderful pizza sauce, he said, and slathered on a roast chicken it’s delightful.

As he prepared to wind down his demonstration, Lemke said, “From the time I opened there’s been a lot of interest. I’ve given away 150 bruschettas.”

Julie Emslie, project manager with the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp., has helped organize the project. “Many leaders in the Fairbanks local food movement have identified a huge disparity between what most consumers are eating and cooking at home and what is actually being grown in the community around them,” Emslie said.

“Promoting the transition from purchasing foods from outside of the state to Alaska grown produce is a difficult task and many consumers lose interest when they become aware of what products are grown locally,” Emslie said. “We believe that this has less to do with taste or variety and more to do with unfamiliarity. Many are working toward changing the cooking and eating culture in many Fairbanks homes to be more reflective of local foods and products.”

Emslie hopes that the program will help strengthen relationships between local farmers and the chefs, culinary students and restaurant owners who can help promote the use of locally grown food.

At the Monday evening Downtown Market, Amy Nordrum, communications coordinator for the Downtown Association of Fairbanks, is thrilled to add this new element. She simply looked at the downtown association membership to find chefs. On her roster are chefs or owners from Alaska Heritage House (bed and breakfast), L’assiette de Pomegranate, Lavelle’s Bistro, Gambardella’s, Julia’s Solstice Café and more.

“It’s pretty serendipitous,” Nordrum said. “One of the missions of the market is to tie in downtown businesses and bring traffic to both the market and downtown. We had already thought of doing something like this before the grant program came along.”

“This is a good way to go,” Lemke said. “It’s healthy for the community in a lot of ways.”

Nancy Tarnai is the public information officer for the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. She writes about agriculture for the News-Miner. She can be reached at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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