For the past year, Ali Lauria has been the "forager" at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. She doesn't like the word. She describes herself more as a good buyer.
"It's not like I'm out there hunting for mushrooms," she says.
Lauria, a 30-year-old native of Argentina, began working at Michael's three years ago as a hostess. She eventually moved to head the reservations department and one day found herself in Homestead, falling in love with seeking out great, local products for the restaurant's kitchen. She juggled both jobs for a year and recently launched her own business, called Farm to Kitchen, to bring local produce to Miami restaurants and markets.
I met with Lauria at the Liberty City Farmers Market, where she was picking up local mulberries and white carrots for Michael's, to talk about foraging and her new business.
New Times: How did you end up as forager at Michael's?
Ali Lauria: About a year ago, we used to have a forager, and then she left, so one of the cooks was actually going down to Homestead. One day I was just like, oh man, I would really like to do this, and I asked if I could go, and that's how it started. I totally fell in love. First of all, I had no idea that all those farms existed. I'm not from here. I came from Argentina ten years ago, and pretty much all that time, all I did was work.
So is that all you do now at the restaurant?
I slowly took myself out of the schedule. Chef [Michael Schwartz] was really supportive of me doing this, seeing as much as I like doing this. He was excited of someone taking over it because Matt [Hinckley] was great at it, but he's a full-time sous chef, so it was really hectic. So once I started doing it, Chef started pushing me to do it more and more, and then he told me: "Ali, make a business out of it." And that's what we did.
Are you already working with other restaurants?
Yes, and I also did the farmers' apprenticeship program with Earth Learning, and through them, we got the opportunity of taking over the big tent at the South Miami farmers' market. We already started the transition, so my husband, my brother, and myself that own the company will be doing that.
That's really cool.
We're excited, but it's challenging because we're taking over when the season here is finishing, but at the same time is really exciting because it's challenging. It's kinda like if we can go through this, it'll be all good during the season. We already started going up north to different farms and meeting different growers to be able to bring product when the season here ends. We want to be as local as possible, but we're willing to expand to the Carolinas and Georgia.
Even though I loved working for Michael's because he's a great person, doing reservations is something you can only do for so long because it's intense. I'm the kind of person who has to have passion as a drive, and that was kinda dying, so I'm really, really excited that this came along.
What are the qualities of a good forager?
Mainly you have to have a passion for food, because if you don't care about food, you're not going to be passionate about going and trying to find it. You know what I mean? So I think it's passion about food and, I guess, appreciation. To me, whenever I go and I find this really cool stuff and I bring it to the kitchen, I get so excited. It's like a little kid bringing a basket full of candy. I bring it to the chefs, and then the chefs see it and they're like, "Oh my God, this is so cool. I can make this and I can make that."
Then I would say patience too, because sometimes it's hard, and here in South Florida, sometimes there's just mangoes, so you have to be creative with that stuff. Also, if you bring stuff to the farmers' market, you have to teach people, and that's a really good experience. You have to tell them where it came from and what you can do with it, and people appreciate that.
What's a typical day like for you?
A typical day, I get up in the morning and I most likely already have my orders -- the chefs send them in ahead of time. A lot of the growers I can call and have them take care of my orders so I just go pick it up, and then I do a lot of just driving around to try to find more things.
I noticed that I got a lot of people excited about planting more stuff. I have this lady that I found and she's very passionate. I'll bring a seed catalogue to her and she's like, "I can grow this, and I can grow that." There are a lot of people that are really cool about that. They're like, "Tell me what you want and we'll plant it."
Do chefs typically ask for something specific?
I get a lot of last-minute calls: "Do you think you can find me baby carrots?" Or they'll call me while I'm out and ask, "Is there anything cool?"
What do you look for when you go out to find products?
Even though we do it all together, I try to separate chefs from the community because they have different needs. When looking for stuff for chefs, I try to find things that are cool or colorful and fun that I know will look good on a plate. At the same time, when I know there's a lot of something because it's the season, I try to also promote that item so that they take full advantage of it.
How many restaurants are you working with?
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So far we have five, and up until now, I haven't had time to dedicate all my time to this.
Was there anything that you felt you had to learn to take on this job?
I think I just learned so much by working at Michael's, because one thing I did in the reservations department was the menu changes, so every time I saw a word that I didn't know, I would try to find out more. If a new farm was in the menu, I would try to ask for information or do research. And like I said, I didn't know there was such a big farming world out here. I don't think I would've ever been able to do this if I hadn't worked at Michael's. I also learned from his passion. He just had a great idea, and he was able to make it happen because he was so passionate, and mainly that's what makes you succeed in life. You might want to make money and have a business and be successful, but if it doesn't come from your heart, I don't think it's going to work. I learn every day.