Greg Johnson (left) of Citizen restaurant with farmer Steve Duling. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
The day before the handoff, Greg Johnson sends a text to nail down the time and the place. The usual is a Wawa parking lot, but the spot used to be at a Food Lion — that is, until a woman interrupted the deal and asked Johnson and his connection to call the police. Another time, a man rolled up trying to sell them a guitar out of a pickup. “We finally had to give that one up,” laughs farmer Steve Duling. “It got too strange.”
It’s a long drive to Duling’s Mechanicville farm, with U.S. 301 threading Johnson’s Citizen restaurant in downtown Richmond to the land where the goods are grown. It’s a drive Johnson makes on the occasion he doesn’t meet at the Wawa, where hundreds of eggs change hands. “Fifty-two weeks a year,” he says. “I don’t think we ever skip a week.” Here on Duling’s farm and on the plate at Citizen, it’s clear why they don’t: Roughly 300 chickens rotate through 10 acres, which keeps the birds on fresh soil. Pair this with a diet of whole grain, ground corn and beans, and you’ve got a final product worth all those weekly drives and parking lot deals: a supple farm-fresh egg with the yellowest, firmest yolk you ever did see.
Quality ingredients can make a dish and elevate a restaurant, but sometimes they’re catch as catch can, and they’re almost always worth the extra effort. It’s why a handful of area chefs and restaurateurs find themselves in parking lots and long stretches of highway, rushing out at a moment’s notice or securing weekly meetings to get the best they can.
“It’s like a shady drug deal,” says Aaron Cross, Rancho T’s executive chef. “All I get is a text: ‘I’ll be [there] in 25 minutes.’ I show up with the money, we go our separate ways.”
Between house-made tacos, tamales, empanadas and daily specials made with corn flour, he needs a lot of masa at his Latin American restaurant. After some trial and error, Cross, along with Rancho T owners Tuffy Stone and Ed Vasaio, decided on Minsa — a specific brand of corn flour that results in a light, pillowy texture. It took weeks of Latin-market visits, a handful of conversations in Cross’ broken Spanish and a number of delivery no-shows until the chef finally located the masa’s distributor and set up a regular meeting time, or as regular a meeting time as these things can be. The driver calls Cross every two weeks just before entering Richmond and Cross shoots out to meet in a parking lot, pulls his Jeep up to the back of the truck, and loads it up.
“It’s the wildest thing, because sometimes the drivers change and sometimes they want me to meet at the West End, so it’s like, new parking lot, new spot,” he says, adding, “And then it’s like, ‘All right, I’ll be there,’ otherwise I won’t see them for another two weeks.”
Back downtown, chef Ida Daniels of Africanne on Main says it’s as much about the price as it is about availability. It can be difficult finding affordable, quality halal meats, but because she only cooks beef, lamb, oxtail and goat on Thursdays and Fridays, a quick stop at a regional halal market can usually tide over the busy lunch buffet and catering operation until she needs to place a larger order. When she does, the chef wakes up at 4 or 5 a.m., drives the roughly 100 miles to Lorton or Washington, D.C., then immediately heads back to Richmond.
So is the trek worth it? Just how much does it save? “If you think about it, probably not much or none at all. When you factor in the time and the gas and all of that, you probably will have enough to buy maybe a root beer,” she says, laughing. “It’s just when you want quantity, you want to go there and save more.”