Not every chef has the luxury of visiting the farmers’ markets every Saturday. Even if they did, it would be nearly impossible for that produce to extend throughout an entire week's menu. And while there are many Central Texas farms harvesting fresh vegetables daily — as well as many purveyors with fresh meats and cheeses — it’s virtually impossible for chefs to take time out of their kitchens to amass a regular supply of fresh items.
So what does a chef committed to sourcing local, seasonal ingredients do to remedy the lack of time and proximity to such items? They call John Lash.
John Lash is the owner of Farm To Table, a delivery company that bridges the mileage and time gap between chefs and farmers. Having fostered relationships with both farmers and chefs, Lash has developed a unique service that covers hundreds of miles through Central Texas each week, bringing fresh veggies, fruits, meat and cheeses to chefs who can’t otherwise do it themselves. Most people would call him the middleman, but if you ask just about any Austin (or San Antonio) chef who works with Lash, they’d call him a godsend.
“I am so appreciative for what John Lash has done for chefs like me,” says Shawn Cirkiel of Parkside, Backspace and Olive & June. “Farm to Table has changed my ability to get large quantities of local ingredients on a regular basis that I couldn’t get by just going to weekend farmers’ markets."
The whole idea spurred from an NPR story Lash heard in 2007 around the same time he was seeking a career change. (He had burned out on a career in marketing and operations in the publishing industry.) He listened as a man told of his similar business concept in Michigan. For Lash, it was the perfect answer to a very real problem. Texas farmers are rich with beautiful, seasonal foods. Chefs need those foods in their kitchen. Lash made it possible to get them there.
“In Texas, there’s a 12-month growing cycle. There’s never a time when there isn’t something great to eat in this state,” says Lash. “I knew there would be more traction for a business like this in Texas than in Michigan, so I went with it.”
At first, the idea took time to grow. Lash would visit markets across the Central Texas region, personally striking up conversations with each of the farmers. Bit by bit, he gained a healthy list of farmers interested in supplying their produce to his business. His appeal among Austin chefs took a grass roots approach as well, with some of his first clients including Vespaio and Jeffrey’s.
Lash and his son, Sam, began the delivery process by driving a general 150-mile route each week in a beat up truck without air conditioning, depositing Farm to Table produce on chefs' kitchen doorsteps. To grow that clientele, he and Sam would make up “samplers” of local produce in brown paper sacks and scatter them to a few different restaurants every Saturday. Eventually, word caught on. Not only in the restaurant scene, but among the farmer circuit as well.
“After certain farmers started to get to know me, I’d start to get calls from other farmers I’d never worked with before,” says Lash. “When I asked then how they’d heard about me, they’d say, ‘Joe So-n-So told me I needed to work with you,’ and it just grew from there.”
It’s been five years since Lash’s hair-brained idea took root, and today, his cell phone is perpetually buzzing with calls, texts or emails. He sends weekly email updates to clients about the batch of goods he’ll have on deck. That email roster used to be about 30 or 40 clients strong; now it’s well over 500 in Austin, San Antonio and throughout the Hill Country, including everyone from La Condesa and Lenoir to Taco Deli, P. Terry’s and Kerbey Lane.
Not too shabby for a man who just wanted to solve a problem. And as long his growing fleet of trucks are transversing the Central Texas roads, farmers and chefs alike will forever be grateful.