Chefs and ranchers are beefing up their relationships in a big way. 
Credit: Photo by Jacqueline Nix via iStock / Getty Images Plus

Chefs have always relied on their relationships with vendors. They work to find the purveyors who have access to the best ingredients and put their faith in those people to get them the ingredients they needed to make their cooking shine. But in recent years, chefs are putting increased energy into getting to know the farmers and ranchers who produce their food, with some surprising and delicious results.

While it is necessary to have some distributors they trust who can get them products you love across a broad swath of items, many chefs are discovering that it is worth the extra effort to work directly with the growers for some key ingredients. Whether it is the baker who wants a particular heritage grain or custom milling, or a chef who needs an unusual vegetable or fruit, or a charcuterie chef who wants a particular breed or meat fed a specific diet, getting to know your farmer or rancher is the first step towards having that control. And for consumers, being able to see a specific farm, rancher, or brand on menus at your local restaurants is one way to ensure a certain standard of quality.

Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in the meat industry. With consumers paying attention to sources of beef and the way those cows are raised, ranchers have been making changes in how they raise their cattle with an eye on sustainability and environmental awareness. Chefs understand the benefit to both the diner and the environment when cows free graze (are on the hoof longer than traditionally farmed cattle) and are working with ranchers to raise their herds in this way.

Ranchers are also relying on chefs to recognize that the increase in quality does carry an increase in cost. Chefs who have personal relationships with the ranchers have become outspoken in defense of these cost increases, and have seen that their customers appreciate and are willing to pay for the quality that comes from these relationships. Many chefs now proudly list the farm that raises their meats right on the menu so that the diners know they are indulging in a dish that is of the highest quality and can make them feel confident about the farming practices that were employed.

“I think chefs and ranchers have a unique relationship. We are both are so close to the food, but in very different ways," says Janet Bourbon, Sterling Silver and corporate chef, Cargill Protein. "As a chef, having a relationship with the rancher allows me to know the story behind my food. Then I can tell that story to my customers. Another bonus is having a really knowledgeable partner I can call with questions about all things cattle. It’s great having a smart person on the phone who really understands the farm-to-fork progression from beginning to end. Our ranchers are a wonderful resource. We couldn’t do our jobs without them.”

It is a wonderful thing for ranchers as well. The upfront guarantees of purchase, and the retainers that often come with that guarantee can give important security to the ranchers who are working with chefs. The ranchers who work with Sterling Silver take enormous pride in the way they raise their cattle, knowing that the extra expenses related to giving the cows a good and happy life gives the most sustainable and most delicious results, and when a chef comes to them directly to acknowledge those efforts, it is a source of tremendous pride.

“We have a level of responsibility, and it makes a great partnership to produce a product that is wholesome, nutritious, healthy and consistent every day,” says Marty Schurr, of Schurrtop Ranch—one of the family establishments that works with Sterling Silver Meats.

These vendors work closely with their ranchers to ensure that they are sending only the best quality products to the restaurants they supply. The special relationship between ranchers and chefs helps to bring a sense of completion for both. The chefs get to feel more connected to the product they are cooking with and the work that went into it, and often find themselves working a bit harder to ensure that they are being extra sensitive to honoring the animals and the care that went into raising them.

Some of the recent push to more nose-to-tail cookery and creative approaches to food waste is a direct result of chefs witnessing firsthand how ranchers are working with the animals and wanting to honor that. For ranchers, it is special to actually know where their hard work ends up and be able to take a bit of ownership of accolades, great reviews, and the success of the restaurants they supply.