Talking Cake with Star Baker Pichet Ong

By Jessica Wolfrom, photography by Jennifer Chase

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

There’s no need to save room for dessert when you can make it the star of the meal.

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

Ong has made a name for himself reinterpreting classic desserts and infusing them with Asian ingredients from his childhood, like the Ovaltine Kulfi or the Vietnamese tapioca coffee affogato he created for Spice Market in New York.

But cake has become a constant in his current role leading the pastry team at The Line Hotel’s Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English. And these aren’t just any cakes. They are pillowy, meringue-based confections with multiple layers. Even for those who foreswear sweets, Ong’s cakes have proved hard to resist.

Cakes are celebratory, but Ong shows us that they can also be cerebral.

This June Edible DC is celebrating its fifth anniversary and we thought there was no one better to cut into a birthday cake with than the master himself, Pichet Ong.

Edible DC’s fifth birthday cake, made by the master Pichet Ong himself.

Edible DC’s fifth birthday cake, made by the master Pichet Ong himself.

What makes the perfect birthday cake?

When I make a cake for someone, I try to incorporate the personality and emotion of that person into the cake. Cake has a long history and different purposes, but for me, I want it to be celebratory—something that is meaningful.

How did you think about creating Edible DC’s birthday cake?

In the process of making the cake for Edible, I wanted to do something seasonal and very current. Edible DC is a publication about food, but not just food—it’s also about the history of food, about agriculture and the local food scene.

And certainly, the emotion and the feeling that evokes from using these strawberries, I wanted it to taste and feel like spring.

I used a layering structure on the inside and a very simple covering on the outside so that there is an element of surprise. I want people to be, like, ‘Oh, wow, there is so much going on inside the cake.’ Which is maybe also how my personality is—there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

You make cakes every day, and I’ve heard you eat sweets to start the day. What’s your philosophy when indulging in dessert?

I grew up in a culture of eating desserts. I’m Chinese, but I lived in Thailand for a little while with my dad and my mom. There weren’t particularly strict rules with eating, but there were very strict rules with everything else. My dad had a very eclectic habit: He liked to start the day with some kind of sweet item.

I see dessert as food, as sustenance—as a meal. That’s why I keep the ingredients fresh and real. I think real desserts should be highly perishable, like salads or seafood.

The best desserts often provoke nostalgia—they remind us of our favorite childhood foods. How important is nostalgia to you, and how do you play with this idea in your desserts?

If you look at every dessert I’ve done, it’s always based on something that’s intended to be reminiscent of something you’ve had before. Ironically, it’s extremely challenging to do a dessert that you’ve had a million times before and make it as good or as interesting.

Take apple pie or strawberry shortcake, for example. I am telling you, it’s very hard. To duplicate that emotion or taste is not easy.

But I use that as a jumping off point to create a new dessert. People like being reminded of the familiar. But then, to make it my own, I’ll add saffron or spices into it and make it something new.

What is the most underappreciated ingredient or flavor when making dessert?

I like savory ingredients a lot. I think savory flavors can be successfully translated into desserts. Probably the most extreme example would be onion or shallot. If you caramelize shallots or onions, they become sweet and complex and very aromatic.

Crème fraîche ice cream with caviar was something that I kept on the menu at P*ONG in New York. I’ve also made black garlic ice cream. It was a true blend of a sweet and savory and people remember it.

Here at Brothers and Sisters, I love saffron. Typically, when people think of saffron, most think immediately of risotto, seafood and paella. But it’s beautiful in dessert. I like to take a very popular item and add something like saffron. Right now, we have a molten chocolate cake with a white chocolate ganache center that I have infused with saffron.

 ou’ve become famous for eschewing super-sugary desserts and focus instead on flavor and structure. What is your attitude about sugar and fat these days?

Sugar and fat are first and foremost a seasoning ingredient. Because I do pastry, I need to use sugar for chemistry. For all the recipes, I use enough for it to interact with the yeasts in the bread and doughs. Same thing with salt. It should enhance but not overpower. I am not a big fan of extreme tastes or foods with one note. You need balance.

Speaking of structure, you got a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. How does this expertise play into your desserts today?

I do think about structure but it’s not the focus. But what I learned most from architecture is the idea of the contextual. That everything you do needs to make sense—in terms of style. It has to be tasteful and cohesive. It is the same thing when you dress [or cook]. It all needs to go together.

I’ve heard you were a self-taught chef. Who influenced your desire to cook?

My mom and my aunt who taught me how to cook. I was surrounded by women in my family who cooked. I think I’ve always had a knack for cooking and I’ve always had the palate. My parents used to tell me at a very young age that I was an adventurous eater.

Often when we think of pastry chefs, we assume they are women. Do you see this norm changing? How much does your identity matter in the kitchen?

Now, it’s not as relevant, but when I first started, things were different. There were more women than men in pastry. Now it’s not so much an issue.

But the most drastic difference is in diversity. We have come a long way, especially in management. There is more and more representation and it isn’t just about race. Now there are more gay chefs, and women chefs, too. But we still have a long way to go.

On Twitter, you are a self-proclaimed “food pimp.” Can you tell us what that means?

I am a big fan of OPD—Other People’s Desserts. Pastry chefs, and chefs in general, can often get closed off in cliques. But I am a fan of stepping outside of that and just showing up and elevating other people’s work.

Speaking of Other People’s Desserts, what is the best dessert you’ve had in DC that you haven’t made yourself?

I don’t want to pick! But I Like Caitlin Dysart’s desserts at Centrolina.

When you crave foods, do you crave sweet or salty?

Both for sure, but I would say mostly salty. My ideal meal is always raw fish, steak and cake—in that order. So, like a sashimi starter or a seafood tower, followed by a steak and then finished with some sort of creamy cake.

If you could make dessert for anyone, who would it be?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’d just want to sit down with her and share a conversation and a piece of cake.

What’s your favorite cake?

Strawberry shortcake.

 

Bugging Out with Insect-Flavored Cocktails

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

By Tim Ebner, photography by Jennifer Chase

“You ate what?” “I would never …” “Ewww, gross!”

These are just a few of the responses I typically get when I tell people that I love to eat bugs.

While you might consider grasshoppers, crickets, ants or worms to be common household pests, many people around the world have developed a taste for edible insects.

When cooked and seasoned carefully, bugs exhibit extreme earthy and bold flavors. Sometimes there’s even a lingering taste of the land from which they came—dare I call it terroir?

Bugs are increasingly becoming an essential part of the human dietary habit. Already people in more than 130 countries eat insects often as part of a meal, and anyone who’s traveled to Mexico knows that chapulines (grasshoppers) are considered to be a delicacy and Oaxacans anticipate griddling up flying ants, called chicatanas, every spring when they swarm after the first rains.

In Washington, DC, bugs are also increasingly showing up on food and drink menus, especially at Mexican-themed eateries, like Oyamel, Poca Madre and Tequila y Mezcal. At these restaurants, especially behind the bar, insects take on a life of their own—an essential ingredient that can add new flavor dimensions to a summer cocktail. 

Hibiscus Margarita with Sal de Gusano

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Columbia Heights has a new mezcal bar called Tequila y Mezcal and it opened just in time for summer, serving Oaxacan dishes as well as tacos and cocktails inspired by century-old cooking traditions.

On most nights, the husband-and-wife team of Chefs Dio Montero and Mirna Alvarado (of Taqueria Habanero fame—also in Columbia Heights) oversee a rapid-fire production of tacos on the grill, including one off-menu item, grasshopper tacos, that only in-the-know patrons know to order a la carte.

Especially in the south-central regions of Mexico, all sorts of bugs, including worms, are eaten regularly. As larvae, they become a tasty byproduct known as sal de gusano (worm salt), which for many in Mexico is a prized possession. You might see it as an additive to a sauté or folded into the making of hand-pressed tortillas. It’s also served in a small bowl alongside a sip of mezcal—just pinch some of the salt to taste, then sip slowly on the mezcal for a smoky aftereffect, says William Martinez, general manager of Tequila y Mezcal.

“You can taste the slight saltiness and you can taste the roasted flavor too,” Martinez says. “I would say it’s almost like eating a sunflower seed as a bar snack.”

Worm salt is also a sustainable way to help mezcal and tequila producers. That’s because this bug’s larvae typically feast on the roots of the agave plant, and since Aztec civilization people have hand-picked the pest to save the agave. When cooked and roasted using a comal, the larvae plump up into a protein-laden snack, or can be ground and combined with rock salt and dried chile peppers to make sal de gusano.

For the at-home bartender, worm salt is an excellent flavoring agent that can be used to replace plain old salt for margaritas. Bartender Israel Mendez shares a recipe that calls for mezcal and comes spiked with the tart and floral notes of hibiscus. To find a jar of sal de gusano, he suggests importing it directly from Oaxaca (a few companies on Amazon.com import the salt) or check your local organic or Mexican market.

Cocktail ingredients:
2 ounces Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal 
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce hibiscus simple syrup
1 cup dried hibiscus flowers (for simple syrup and garnish)
Lime wedge (for garnish)
Sal de gusano (for garnish)

To make the hibiscus simple syrup: Bring 2 cups of sugar and water in a saucepan to boil, stirring occasionally. Remove the saucepan from heat, then add a cup of hibiscus flowers, allowing the mixture to steep for at least 5 to 10 minutes and continuing to stir occasionally. Strain the mixture, keeping only the simple syrup.

To make the hibiscus margarita: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine the mezcal, lime juice and hibiscus simple syrup. Shake vigorously. Take a cocktail glass and dip the rim in lime juice, then onto a plate of sal de gusano. Finally, take the glass and add ice (half-full), then strain the cocktail mix, garnishing with a lime wedge or slice and a dried hibiscus flower.

Oaxacan Orange with Gusano Rojo

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Gusano rojo (not to be confused with a popular Mexican brand of mezcal) literally translates to mean “red worm,” and it’s another inventive take on a worm salt that adds spice and heat to a cocktail that’s bursting with fresh citrus flavor—the Oaxacan Orange.

The cocktail is a specialty at Oyamel in Chinatown. Beverage director Alan Grublauskas says it’s one of the most popular drinks on the menu, and he bets very few people know the drink comes lined with the restaurant’s house-made worm salt, ground with Oaxacan sea salt, chile de árbol pepper and a common Mexican spice, Pasilla de Oaxaca Flakes.

“Then we add the red worms—gusano rojo—to bring out the orange color in the salt,” he says.

His fondness for bugs doesn’t stop there.

“We typically like to ask people how adventurous they are,” Grublauskas says. “Because, here, you can sample everything from worms to scorpions, even grasshoppers.”

Aside from the sustainability benefits of eating insects, Grublauskas likens the taste to eating potato chips, but better.

“You can roast this bug in a mixture of salt and spices, and it really transforms into something extremely tasty. I think many people’s minds are shifting, and they’re venturing toward insects,” he says. “You can eat them whole or you can grind them down into a variety of different salts that work really well as a garnish or finish.”

Cocktail ingredients:
1½ ounces Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal 
½ ounce Luxardo Maraschino liqueur 
2 ounces sour orange juice 
Gusano rojo (for garnish)
Orange wedge (for garnish)

Sour orange juice ingredients: 
¼ cup fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice 
¼ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
½ cup fresh lime juice

In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine the mezcal, Luxardo and sour orange juice. Shake vigorously. Take a cocktail glass and first dip the rim in lime juice followed by gusano rojo. Finally, take the glass and add ice (half-full), then strain the mix, adding an orange wedge (rim dipped in extra gusano rojo) if you prefer.

Charlie and the Chapuline Factory

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Photo by Jennifer Chase.

With a cocktail named in honor of Willy Wonka, you would expect a drink that’s outlandish and fun.

But without looking too closely at the cocktail menu, Poca Madre patrons could soon be in for a sudden surprise if they order the Charlie and the Chapuline Factory.

The drink comes garnished with a grasshopper and combines the earthy flavors of ground-up peanuts and grasshoppers for an earthy sensation.

“We blend up the grasshoppers with our peanut syrup. Then we purée and strain it,” says Amin Seddiq, Poca Madre's beverage manager. “You get this distinct earthy flavor, with a slight saltiness, because the grasshoppers are cured in salt and lime.”

The drink is a classic take on a sour cocktail, but it has both thickness and texture thanks to the peanut-and-grasshopper syrup.

And if you think grasshoppers are still somewhat of a novelty in the United States, you better guess again.

Seddiq says recently these critters have sprung onto grocery store shelves, including at MOM’s Organic Market in Ivy City.

Preserved insects, like grasshoppers, crickets and mealworms, are for sale by the ounce, or you can try a variety of pre-packaged snack bars and chips seasoned with insect powder.

“I think grasshoppers really are one of nature’s original proteins,” Seddiq says. “So many cultures have used them for centuries, and it adds such an interesting flavor component to the drink.”

Cocktail ingredients:
2 ounces mezcal
1 ounce lime juice 
1½ ounces peanut syrup
Egg white from 1 egg

Peanut and grasshopper syrup:
3 ounces peanuts
¼ ounce grasshoppers
1 cup sugar
1½ cups pineapple juice
1 stalk lemon grass, roughly chopped
1 chile de árbol pepper, roughly chopped

To make the peanut syrup: Wrap the lemongrass and chilies in cheesecloth. In a saucepan, bring the sugar, grasshoppers and pineapple juice to a boil. Then, add in the lemongrass and chilies and let steep for 10 minutes on high heat. Remove the lemongrass and chilies, then blend the remaining liquid on high for 2 minutes. Strain the mixture and place back into the blender, adding peanuts. Blend for another 2 minutes. Place the mixture back in the saucepan and bring it to a boil again. Turn off the heat and let simmer for 15 minutes. Finally, strain a final time, adding a quarter cup of pineapple juice.

To make the Charlie and the Chapuline Factory: In a cocktail shaker combine all ingredients, then shake vigorously. Strain and serve the drink in a cocktail glass on the rocks. Garnish with an edible flower and place a grasshopper on the flower.

DCVegFest this Sunday at Nationals Park

The East Coast’s largest vegan festival features plant-based food samples, 120 different vendors, cooking demos and entertainment

Photo courtesy of DCVegFest.

Photo courtesy of DCVegFest.

DC VegFest, the popular annual celebration of plant-based living, happens this Sunday, August 11, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Nationals Park. Returning for its 11th year, the event is free and open to everyone. The event is hosted with the purpose of promoting a plant-based diet. This year features a VIP opportunity where event-goers can mingle with speakers and chefs, tickets are available here for the VIP experience. At the same link, there are also tickets that get you a vegan treats-filled tote. Event organizers expect a crowd and anticipate over 20,000 attendees.

This year the event will feature vegan food served by dozens of vendors including Vegan Treats, Amsterdam Falafelshop, Brewing Good Coffee, Bakeshop DC, Ben & Jerry’s, and YogiDog. Over 100 nonprofit and commercial exhibitors will set up shop for the day including Mom’s Organic Market, Dr. Bronner’s, A Well-Fed World, Roots Market, Barnard Medical Center and TryVeg.com. For a complete list of vendors, go here.

The main stage will feature DC comedian and emcee Sean Savoy, vegan cooking demonstrations and educational speakers. There activities for families with “The Kid’s Zone” featuring a built-in playground, and activities like face painting and an interactive cartooning demonstration.

Added bonus? Dogs are welcome.

save-the-date.jpg

DC VegFest is organized by Compassion Over Killing.

Nationals Park 1500 South Capitol St SE Washington, DC  

Eating Greener: Future Harvest CASA Aims for Healthier Farms, People and Animals

Dena Leibman, Executive Director, Future Harvest CASA. Photo by Linda Wang.

Dena Leibman, Executive Director, Future Harvest CASA. Photo by Linda Wang.

By Lani Furbank | Photography by Linda Wang

Early in Dena Leibman’s career she believed that farming and environmentalism didn’t mix. “I had this naïve ‘farmers are the enemy’ kind of approach. To me, wilderness was sacred,” she recalls.

Her career had been built on work with the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Protection Agency and was all rooted in protecting nature. It wasn’t until she took a job with the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program that she began to understand how farmers could make land and water stewardship a priority.

“That job just changed my life. I learned about sustainable agriculture and it introduced me to the realities of farming. My black-and-white views became a whole lot grayer,” she says.

Dena now has her own farm—primarily a retreat center for nonprofits—which led her to Future Harvest CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture).

“When we bought the farm, I went to every single Future Harvest CASA field education event I could go to,” she says. “And I learned a lot about what I didn’t want to do.” Eventually she became the nonprofit’s executive director, a role she’s held for the past five years.

Future Harvest CASA’s mission is to advance agriculture that is profitable, protects land and water and strengthens communities.

“That’s our core mission,” she says. “It’s not that easy, but it’s doable, and farmers prove it all the time.”

This year, the organization is celebrating its 20th anniversary and launching a major education campaign. We sat down with Dena to discuss her life as a farmer, her work at Future Harvest and the Go Grass-fed Campaign.

Dena in her kitchen at her farm. Photo by Linda Wang.

Dena in her kitchen at her farm. Photo by Linda Wang.

Once you had your own land, did your understanding and appreciation of farming change?

Oh my god, yes! If they haven’t been raised on a farm, people go into farming with this bright-eyed look, no matter how much you take them by the collar to shake them and say, “It’s really hard, do your homework, look at the markets.” They just want to go do it. I was just like them, even though I knew better.

We built the hoop house and it was in perfect order. I planted a lot of kale, and I grew it and I harvested it. I get to the Takoma Park Co-Op and their buyer gives me $45 for something I had spent hours and hours and hours on. I realized there’s certainly no profit in the way I was doing that. I talk to farmers day in and day out. You have to just love it, you have to be a great marketer and you have to have help if you’re going to make your living off of farming. I have little patience for people who think it’s easy.

How does Future Harvest support farmers?

We do education, community building and advocacy on behalf of sustainable agriculture in the Chesapeake region. Our field school runs field education events—either expert-led or farmer-to-farmer—teaching innovations in marketing as well as sustainable production. The beginner farmer training program is 10 years old, and it started with just a couple farmers in Baltimore County saying “We’re running out of farmers.” Now, I would say we’ve graduated about 300 graduates. A lot of them start farming and then give it up, but what’s happening is that the people who really are meant to be farmers, they persevere and they figure it out. We also give startup grants to low-income farmers, and I would say about 20% of this year’s and last year’s class are farmers of color. Our annual January conference launches our programming every year and about 650 people come, from farmers from all over the region to food advocates. It has production workshops, social justice workshops, regenerative agriculture workshops, marketing workshops. There’s something for everyone.

What is the Go Grass-fed Campaign?

The goal of the Go Grass-fed Campaign is to step up both supply and demand for grass-fed meat and dairy, which to be successful will take consumers being complete partners with farmers. Consumers can’t demand anything from farmers for which they’re not willing to help maintain a robust market. We are “farmer first,” so in this campaign we’ll educate consumers with the farmer in mind.

Several years ago, we published the Amazing Grazing Directory, listing all the producers of grass-fed meat and dairy products in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. In the last edition, the number of producers tripled and we realized that there was increasing competition for those farmers. We knew that we could help step up demand for grass-fed products, so we wrote a grant proposal to the USDA, and we got it.

For the producer-facing part of it, we partnered with the Mountains-to-Bay Grazing Alliance. They, along with Future Harvest, are doing production workshops. Then there’s the consumer-facing part. The Maryland Farmers Market Association and Central Farm Markets will be doing meat tastings in the fall. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is putting on this big Burgers and Brews event and it’s going to be featuring grass-fed beef. A filmmaker is producing a film that will explain all the virtues of going grass-fed. Plus the new Amazing Grazing Directory, which we’re putting together. We’re going on all cylinders here.

Why should consumers care if their meat is grass-fed?

We’re distilling it down into three things: It’s good for you, it’s good for the planet and it’s good for farmers and animals. For you, there’s less fat, fewer calories, more omega-3 fatty acids, more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), more protein. They say it’s linked to decreased risk of cancer, diabetes, some types of immune system disorders and cardiovascular diseases. For the planet, it increases the health of the soil and improves water quality. The stable soil system maintains more water, and thus prevents polluted runoff. It can store carbon from the atmosphere. This is the kind of farming that mimics nature and works with nature, and it’s just a beautiful way to farm. It’s better for farmers because they don’t get locked into importing a lot of grain or growing a lot of grain. They can have self-sustaining pastures. As for animal welfare, they’re out on pasture, they’re grazing on delicious forage, very nutritious for animals. The meat is more flavorful; everything’s more flavorful in this kind of system.

What is the best way to support the grass-fed industry?

It’s saying “I pledge to spend a minimum of 80% of my meat budget on locally produced grass-fed meat and dairy.” It sounds doable, doesn’t it? I would hope that people eat less meat and the meat they eat is raised on pasture. Can we feed everybody through pasture-raised meat if they eat less? Yes.

Places to Go, Things to Eat

From the group behind CAVA, a new stand-alone restaurant in North Bethesda.

From the group behind CAVA, a new stand-alone restaurant in North Bethesda.

The Bethesda and Rockville edition, sponsored by EYA

By Susan Able

New favorites and old loves abound in the southern Montgomery County towns, and the rise of new apartment and condo housing with abundant new restaurant space has brought new clusters of walkable gastronomic exploration.

In the neighborhood now called North Bethesda, the retail and residential development has been nothing less than meteoric, as a recent walk-around revealed. Dine on aged prime steaks at Del Frisco’s, enjoy gastropub fare with Owen’s Ordinary, feast on fresh fish and more at City Perch and there are everyone’s favorite fast-casual spots in abundance. Throw in an 8 screen movie theater with a parking garage, this is a one-stop shop for entertainment, dining and shopping.

Summer House Santa Monica is a great place for breezy Californian food, as is its sister, Stella Barra, both from the well-known Lettuce Entertain You group from Chicago. But what has captured my heart (stomach?) and tempted me more than once to park illegally while I run in are these: Sourdough English muffins. Summer House’s bakery makes incredible muffins. Buy them, freeze them, thank me later.

And check out Julli. A new restaurant from the Cava Group, Julli is in its own small building, charmingly designed. Fresh entrée-size salads, smoked salmon tartine and the burger were all tops; it was a copacetic place to dine.

Just a mile up Rockville Pike in the Twinbrook area are several places worth checking out. First, my go-to market for Persian ingredients and all you need to cook Yotam Ottolenghi–style is Yekta Market, but Rockville is also known its bevy of very good Chinese restaurants (dumplings!). Urban Hot Pot is a shared experience of Chinese hot-potting with very fresh ingredients. A raised bar for small plates on the west side of the pike three minutes north from Yekta is A&J Restaurant; the noodle soups and fried chicken are worth the stop.

And just north is Pike Kitchen, a new Asian food hall, open daily. A fun, lively stop, it features food stalls with Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and Chinese food. Street food fusion rules here: Think food on sticks, Korean tacos and (what everyone was in line for when I visited) the mochi doughnuts from Pike Bakery. I’m not sure I ate the healthiest food, but I was very happy.

Looping back south to Bethesda, if you haven’t tried Q by Peter Chang, make plans—especially with a group of friends to do the Dim Sum Brunch, Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 3pm. Inventive takes on standards and the Chang touch make this a standout, as well as the large, airy space.

An under-the-radar spot in Bethesda with an  interesting Italian wine list and crispy Neapolitan-style pizza is Pizzeria Da Marco. Lots of loyal customers, and you’ll see why. Attentive and knowledgeable staff when I’ve been there, and a deft hand at salads—simple, lightly dressed, perfect.

Finally, save room for dessert (or another meal) at Praline Bakery and Bistro. Praline Bakery has expanded to other locations, but the mothership in Bethesda is tucked away and a cozy spot to linger or pick up macarons and other French-style cookies, cakes and pastries to take home. Or to happy friends.


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o discover upscale townhome living surrounded by some of the top dining destinations, check out www.eya.com/edible.

 

American Beauties

Butterbee Flower farm in Maryland. Photo by Kate Headley.

Butterbee Flower farm in Maryland. Photo by Kate Headley.

The case for field-to-vase: Cut flowers are latest frontier in buy-local campaign

By Susan Able

That vase of farm-market flowers is more than just beautiful. For flower farmers in the DMV, the rising interest in buying flowers that are grown locally is a market trend that they are happy to see. And “buy local” advocates are waking up and smelling ... well, almost anything except roses.

Still, more than 70% of flowers sold in the U.S. are not grown here. They are imported, especially roses.  “Imagine if every tomato you bought was not grown here,” says Virginia flower farmer Andrea Gagnon. “That’s essentially the situation with flowers in the U.S.”

And like tomatoes, people like purchasing flowers. A lot. In 2016, the U.S. imported well over a billion dollars of cut flowers, a 50% increase over 10 years. Most imported cut flowers (over 90%) come into Miami, and then are shipped all over the country in refrigerated trucks.

Why? Well, it’s both complicated and simple. Over 80% of cut flower imports come from Colombia and Ecuador. The weather in equatorial South America is more favorable to growing flowers year-round, labor costs are low and the transport to Miami is a short distance by jet and less weather-dependent than northern ports of entry.

But what really got the flower business turned upside down for U.S. farmers were trade policies enacted in 1991 meant to curb the cocaine drug trade by offering incentives for legal economic growth in Colombia and other South American countries. Colombia expanded its rose and cut flower business rapidly.

California, Florida and other states that were large flower growers found themselves struggling against imports and the American rose and carnation business took a nose dive. Roses represent the largest percentage of imported flowers, followed by chrysanthemums, carnations, alstroemerias and gypsophilas. Tropical flowers, mainly orchids, make up a smaller share of imports.

But just like commodity-raised meat and produce, large scale has downsides. That picture-perfect bunch of roses and gerbera daisies are flown in on jets, then trucked all over the U.S. On Valentine’s Day alone, over 30 jets loaded with a million flowers land in Miami each year.

“The actual cost for a $14.99 bouquet suddenly becomes very large when you look at the way these flowers were grown,” explains Kasey Cronquist, administrator of American Grown Flowers and CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission. “We as U.S. growers receive rigorous oversight in terms of environmental and labor regulations, which is not the case in other countries. And the market force behind being able to sell inexpensive cut flowers at the major grocers—like Kroger, Safeway, Trader Joe’s—keeps the interest in keeping the costs low on imports, at the cost of employee welfare, the environment and trade balance.”

Kasey Cronquist Profile Picture.jpg

Kasey Cronquist, leader of the American Grown movement and CEO of the California Cut Flower Comission

American Grown Flowers, the organization that Cronquist helms, was spun out of the U.S. Specialty Cut Flower Association to lobby and promote U.S. flower farmers and their cause.

Cronquist and I spoke just after he spent an intense three days in Washington, where he organized flowers for the First Ladies’ Luncheon sponsored by the U.S. Congressional Club. Starting in the last year of the Obama administration, only U.S.–grown flowers are used for this luncheon.

“This kind of exposure is just huge for us,” Cronquist tells me. “It’s more than symbolic; it has real impact. We’ve done market research and know that 85% of U.S. consumers don’t know where flowers come from, yet the same research shows that 60% of consumers show a clear preference for buying American-grown flowers. U.S.–grown flowers are only 20% of the market right now—so you can see we’ve got a substantial market share gap to close.”

Help promoting U.S. flower growers may come from unexpected places. Alaska has a growing floral farming economy with a focus on field-grown peonies and Cronquist tells me that Congressman Don Young (R-AK) is planning to introduce “The American Grown Act,” which would require that the federal government purchase local-grown flowers.

“We’ve been working with Congress on a bipartisan approach in the Senate and the House to support this bill. With Congress’ support, July is now American Grown Flowers Month and we want to continue the momentum from Congress to support economic development opportunities for small and large farms alike.”

Cronquist continues, “So it’s been gratifying to see this kind of leadership support and the momentum in the consumer marketplace to buy American flowers—but are we talking to the right people? How do we encourage the most important people—the flower buyers and retailers—to look at supporting the American flower industry as a way to improve the floral industry? Influencing the large retail buyers’ purchasing behavior is where the battle will be won and lost for consumers. Source and support—that’s the big challenge. For the top floral retailers of inexpensive cut flowers—Kroger, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart—cheap imported flowers will win the day by price point. And the internet florist trade (1-800-Flowers, etc.) from fulfillment centers—again, price point—leads to imports from South America.”

The American Grown movement continues to expand through certification, improving data bases for retailers to find what they need and getting more U.S. flower farmers involved. “We want as many flower farmers to join us as possible,” Cronquist says. “If flower farmers unite across the country with the same message at the same time, we can accomplish so much more together. We can compete with more strength against imports and create better systems and distribution for U.S.–grown flowers that are produced year-round—so that U.S. retailers and floral designers can access flowers all year.”


Andrea Gagnon at the Palisades Farm Market. Photo by Jennifer Chase

Andrea Gagnon at the Palisades Farm Market. Photo by Jennifer Chase

Virginia Flower Farmer Andrea Gagnon, LynnVale Studios

When I tell Andrea Gagnon that she is one of the “original gangsters” of the local flower movement, she laughs, but agrees.

Gagnon and her husband made the decision to move back to their family farm in Gainesville, VA, as a way to preserve the farm and as a place to raise their children. An architect by training, Gagnon started selling flowers at farmers markets in 2002 and now has five acres “under flower.”

“As soon as I grew as my first cockscomb plant, I was just hooked. I couldn’t believe that I grew something so exotic looking. And then I sold it. And someone paid me for it. I fell in love with the direct sharing of my work. I started doing more markets, and then in year two I started getting asked to do weddings. That was an exciting expansion and scratched my design itch,” Gagnon tells me. “It’s been incredibly exciting, but like all farming, rain and weather create stress for us. We’ve been investing heavily this past year in new beds and new earlier and later varieties. It’s a large part of the cost of being a flower farmer.”

Shoppers at the FRESHFARM Dupont Sunday market and the Palisades Sunday market are thrilled to see Gagnon’s gorgeous peonies, sweet peas, poppies and anemones in the spring and early summer; she is particularly known for her dahlias.

For a flower farmer like Gagnon, there is barely time to rest in the warm months. She maintains a packed schedule of events and markets—and the work of a farmer: planting, weeding and cutting. She tells me that is excited to see the product of this year’s long-term investment: woody shrubs like lobelia and a new variety of hydrangea.

“Our customers are sophisticated shoppers who look to me for out-of-the-ordinary cut flowers, and I love that. We can plant things that are very different and know there is a market for them—plus, it pushes me to be innovative.”

“So the LynnVale farm has been win-win. To be at market on a Sunday with real people and make a bouquet and hand it to someone is really fulfilling to me; it is connecting them to the joy of growing. And then preservation of open space is paramount—we have 10 acres in the middle of 100. We’ve been approached many years to sell, but farming is like breathing. It is critical to keep land open and in agriculture.”

Gagnon is a member of the American Grown Council. She tells me about her work, “At this point to help weigh in attracting new flower farms and to be an advocate and helping the direction of the program—it is exciting to see the movement have a life of its own and to see it go from just an idea to where it is now. To see the “American Grown” label on flowers in the marketplace it is so gratifying. —this takes down a barrier to so many designers and helped the marketplace overall. Large flowers wholesalers can’t ignore this trend anymore.”


Tobie Whitman holds a Little Acre bouquet sourced from only local flowers. Photo by Jennifer Chase.

Tobie Whitman holds a Little Acre bouquet sourced from only local flowers. Photo by Jennifer Chase.

 Little Acre Flowers, A Flower Designer Sourcing Only Local

Tobie Whitman grew up in Southern California surrounded by flower farms and flowers have been her passion since she was a child.

A consultant at USAID, Whitman had a nagging need to be more creative in her work and to create tangible products. One day nine years ago found herself walking in to one of DC’s top florists, saying “I’m here, I will do whatever you want.” She was put to work immediately and shares a “Tobie Tip” with me: “If you ever want to work at a florist, go the week before Valentine’s Day. You’ll get a job.”

Whitman lived a double life for several years—consultant by day, florist on the weekend—until she made the leap. Five years ago she founded what is DC’s only 100% locally sourced flower design company, Little Acre Flowers.

What inspired her to source locally?

“Well, I knew from my work at the florist that many customers wanted fresh and seasonal flowers, and I knew they weren’t getting that,” she says. “And for myself, working with flowers all day I actually getting a rash from the imported roses. As someone who was starting a family, I didn’t want to be around chemicals. I read Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful, which explained the imported commodity flower business, and at the same time I met Bob Wollam, one of the leading flower growers and experts in the area from Wollam Gardens in Jeffersonton, VA, and understood that he could supply me all year round. It all clicked for me. I was going local.”

The biggest challenge for Whitman was where to get flowers in the winter. Luckily, Bloomia, a large grower in King George, VA, could provide tulips year-round. That was essential to Whitman’s equation, because now she had at least a base of flowers for year-round arrangements and found it could work. She does source flowers from North Carolina, but as she explains, they are “grown, not flown.”

Little Acre Flowers launched with a daily local arrangement—in different sizes. Whitman was worried. Were people going to be OK with that? They were. Now Whitman has a studio and staff. Still, it’s not a high-margin industry after paying for flower costs, staffing and distribution. More people are able to buy local flower bunches from farms who sell direct to grocery stores, particularly local tulip. But as Whitman proudly tells me, “We’ve persisted. What I love most is how moved people are when they open their bouquet. They love getting these arrangements and the connection to nature and the environment. We are giving them an authentic moment with farmers and not a connection to an insecticide-filled refrigerator in Colombia.”

She continues, “At the end of the day, our flowers are really beautiful and real. And then, when customers get what is going on within that arrangement—the localness, the better environment, the contribution to our local economy—then you have something truly amazing.”