Restaurant Reviews

Foraging, South Florida-Style

Ali Lauria thought everything would arrive unscathed. It was not long before rush hour on a sunny January evening when she stacked 30 dozen eggs on the passenger seat of a silver Dodge Ram and drove north from Homestead on Florida's Turnpike. Filled with strawberries and tomatoes, the pickup truck's bed glowed red.

By dinnertime, those tomatoes were supposed to be in the hands of a chef.

They didn't make it.

A car cut Lauria off. She lost control, spun across four lanes, and stopped with a cracking thud. Yolks dripped from her hair, her chin, her eyelashes. This was her first day as a full-time forager, and it would be months before she saw the inside of an egg again.

"I'll never forget that smell," she says.

Her husband, Chris Padin, wasn't too far away. A former Sunny Isles Beach lifeguard with deep golden skin, he was delivering produce to a South Miami restaurant. When he arrived, he found Lauria, a petite Argentine with inky hair and baby-blue tattoos, in a panic.

Ali wasn't injured, but the truck was a mess. They had lost more than $1,000 worth of heirloom tomatoes in an instant.

For the couple, foraging has proven difficult. Beyond Miami, the term refers to those who seek out wild foods — truffle hunters in Oregon, berry scavengers in New York, and dandelion pickers who savor the weeds in their own front yards around the country. René Redzepi forages across Scandinavian seashores and forests for native ingredients such as wood sorrel and garlic shoots. His Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, is considered among the best in the world.

In South Florida, though, the practice takes on a different character. Foragers link the city's leading chefs with local farmers. Padin and Lauria prefer to call it sourcing. Still, the forager moniker has stuck.

The couple works exclusively with small and medium-size growers. This scale, however, can prove challenging at times. Supply is limited and insecure. Demand fluctuates. Other foragers have failed before them. What makes Padin and Lauria different?

They had some advantages from the beginning. Three years ago, while working as a reservations manager at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Lauria received encouragement from her then-boss, Michael Schwartz, to start a foraging business. Schwartz provided her with farm contacts in Homestead. He lent her the now-totaled, egg-splattered pickup truck. He also gave her a stellar client: the chef's restaurant group, which boasts four venues in Miami and purchases more than two pallets of local heirloom tomatoes per week. That's more than any Whole Foods in South Florida.

This support helped the pair significantly, but building a larger client base proved onerous. "The challenge in the beginning was finding chefs who were willing to pay more for local vegetables," Padin says.

So they sought chefs with a passion for Florida-grown produce. They named their business Farm to Kitchen and began using their modest size as a marketing tool. Unlike large operations, the kind that deal with truckloads and distribution centers, Padin and Lauria can visit farmers in the morning and deliver produce in the afternoon. Restaurants receive the day's harvest before their first dinner service.

This promise of freshness has lured customers since the pair's first day in January 2011. Padin and Lauria cater to the Pubbelly Restaurant Group, the Dutch at the W South Beach, the Broken Shaker, Macchialina, and the Standard Hotel.

Now their concern is about turning a profit. "If a pound of tomatoes is a dollar or two, you have to sell a lot to make money," Lauria says.

To help float the business, she works at an acupuncturist's office in South Beach, where she mixes herbal remedies. Padin is working on a two-year degree at an Ayurveda institute in Kendall. Their part-time gigs have allowed for steady growth.

Juan Rochaix wasn't as lucky. He once foraged for some of Miami's leading chefs, including James Beard Award-winning Michelle Bernstein. But then his company, Seriously Organic, faltered. Small-scale farmers demanded payment at the time of receipt. Rochaix's clients, particularly hotels, took longer to issue checks. "It became a billable game," he says. "It's hard to make a buck this way." Now he's developing a farm share concept that's all protein — Florida eggs, raw milk, and chicken.

Buying larger amounts of produce could help, except there aren't many small-scale farms to choose from. The Redland may be a vast, lush area ideal for growing avocados, mangoes, and lychees, but most of its land is occupied by plant nurseries and mass-producing farms.

"Those really big farms grow tomatoes that don't stay in the state. They pick them when they're green, gas them [with ethylene], and they're against what we want to do," Padin says.

The couple counts on a handful of farms. Most tomatoes hail from Teena's Pride, a 160-acre swath of land in the Redland that also provides them with edible flowers, greens, and herbs. There are other celebrated growers, such as Paradise Farms and Bee Heaven Farms. Padin and Lauria also source from PNS Farms and Martha's U-Pick.

Martha Corona — a Mexican woman with sleek, black hair and a gentle smile — oversees the 15-acre U-pick. When Lauria and Padin visit her Krome Avenue storefront, Corona busts out a sharp knife, slices the top off a chilled coconut, and hands them a coco frío. Standing amid stacks of eggplants and papayas, they gossip and joke like old friends. But this is also about work: Farm to Kitchen is Corona's biggest client.

A few years ago, Corona grew only tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, and bananas. But this season, Lauria and Padin asked the farmer to plant kale, romanesco, and purple cauliflower. Now Corona's kale is featured consistently on the menu at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. She has already ordered heirloom tomato seeds for next year.

"It went from her having a little stand to now she's full-on planting mainly for restaurants. To me, the most satisfying thing is that we grew and she grew with us," Lauria says.

The couple hopes to expand to Broward and Palm Beach counties soon. They hired an assistant and are building a wood-burning oven in their backyard garden. There, they want to launch a supper club serving their homegrown produce. They also created a business plan: accordion-folded cardboard glued with magazine cutouts and colorful lettering that details their goals.

"What we want long term is for people to use local produce and know where their food comes from," Padin says. "And, well, a little bit of money at the end of the day would also be nice."

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Emily Codik