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You could hear the crowd distantly cheering for a bull rider at the Tejas Rodeo as we delicately sampled our bacon wrapped shrimp deep in the heart of Bulverde. It was that kind of night.
Chef Isaac Cantu happily explained that the shrimp was bought that morning on the coast, and then paired with Chef James Canter’s personal garden spiced greens. I know all this because I somehow found myself, for the third decadent dinner and time, at the San Antonio Chef Cooperative. Tis was dinner not by one or two of the city;’s best chefs, but by 12 of the best executive chefs in the city.
For the devoted or obssessed patron, the Chef Cooperative serves top-tier creative dishes in an atmosphere fundamentally different from a restaurant. The location, the menu, and the style are one-time only, so everyone is enjoying the same experience for the first time. Dynamism becomes an accompanying flavor as the evening evolves. Distinctively, it all comes across as a labor of love. The chefs create and then savor the fruits of their labor right alongside the people they are serving. The fourth installation of the Chef Cooperative dinner will be in June at Fig Tree. Like them on Facebook for updates.
The perspiring Karbach Weekend Warrior and Cattle Drive Chili seized the full attention of patrons shortly after they were seated. New and old acquaintances bonded quickly, as Karbach’s brews and Chisholm‘s wines rendered the room jolly. By the last dish, and Im not lying, smoked rattlesnake served family style, cheeks were rosy, appetites were sated, and friendly voices drowned out the sounds of square dancing one barn away.
The chefs had fun, too. Each dish was introduced with a dash of competitive pride and, here and there, well-placed jibes aimed at fellow chefs. It was noted that this event wouldn’t be half as interesting it were tightly orchestrated. Instead, individual chefs gives the dishes and the event their own personal flavor, and how the night will turn out no one knows.
I casually sampled the cow tongue and goat sausage splashed with apricot sauce from Chris Cook and Heather Nanez, and I remembered what Stephen Paprocki, president of the Chefs Cooperative, told me about cooking collaboration.
“It’s amazing what two chefs can come up with together that have different food backgrounds, talents, passion and overall direction of the dish to the final product said.
Those backgrounds, talents, and passions have distinct tastes but similar priorities. Every chef puts an emphasis on creatively deploying Texan products, because the dinners are intended to stir up much more than a single evening’s dinner fare.
The chefs don’t get a dime of the entry fee, and only 40 per cent of the proceeds from the dinner go towards the next event. Sixty per cent goes directly to the celebrated farm. This time, it was Mesquite Field Farms, a “beyond organic,” off the grid, grass-fed beef farm that treated the cooperative to their very first table-ready cattle.
For a City on the Rise, the chef’s cooperative solidifies relationships, normalizes collaboration, and builds interdependence to make San Antonio’s food better. Even if you never attend a Chef Cooperative dinner, as the food gets more local, healthier, and tastier in San Antonio, it will be pushed forward by a group of people enjoying cooking together.
Paprocki is a South Texas convert who has kept his New York City voice. Speaking at breakneck speed as he leaned casually over the rodeo’s ranch fencing, he seemed emboldened.
“It’s not rocket science: chefs want the best produce and meat available, and farmers are ready to work with us. We just have to create a situation where we can directly interact.”
I took a gulp of Chisholm Trail’s Cabernet Sauvignon, produced in Fredricksburg.
“But it’s not just about the farmer and the chef,” he added. “Developing this community means taking care of the dishwasher, the server, and the patron. The cooperative dinners are part of the rest of it. It’s about helping everybody. It’s about Texas.”
As a local farmer (albeit an unusual one), I have been consistently surprised by the demand for what I’m growing. I can’t grow enough to satisfy the restaurants and shops that want to feature local hydroponic greens. As I visit restaurants around the city, it’s obvious there are few local optionss at the local joints. What gives?
The Chef Cooperative is comprised of the right people, in the right place, at the right time. A movement towards better food (call it what you will: slow food, locavore, farm-to-table) is becoming more viable as consumers develop a preference and global food becomes more costly.
Every dinner has been sold out, so they must have hit a nerve in this city. The organization, previously operating under Paprocki’s consulting company Top Chefa, has been incorporated as its own organization, ready to make big moves.
Central Market and Whole Foods provide great products, but the scale they require can be daunting for an emerging small farm. Restaurants fill the gap for folks like Mesquite Field by requiring a smaller volume and guaranteeing a more consistent sale than consumers in the supermarket, and the chefs who make the menus are usually the key to restaurants’ decisions.
So the Chefs Cooperative directly contributes most of its revenue to a local farm, it gives aspiring farmers a place to sell, and it brings cooks together who enthusiastically compete for the best product available. Still, the fact that this food is better for the city and the planet isn’t enough to make a real transition happen.
The only way for local, sustainable farmers to succeed is to provide something better than what industrial farms sell.
Any of my skepticism on that question was lost as I watched the pomegranate glazed Bandera quail come out, prepared by Laurent Rae of The Fig Tree and Zach Lutton of Zedric’s. While the dish was beautiful, it couldn’t capture my attention nearly as well as the ancient bearded patron at the table adjacent to mine.
With round, yearning eyes, and eyebrows that reached his widow’s peak, he couldn’t take his gaze off of the arriving dish. When it was placed before him, I watched him silently mouth a prayer. From then on, I only saw his eyes and mouth open to find the next fork-full.
Even given that religious experience, attendees were hard pressed to enjoy the evening as much as the chefs that put it on. Zach Lutton, lately used to cooking healthy and gourmet to-go dishes at Zedric’s rather than a seven course series of entrées, grinned as he shared why chefs would go through so much trouble to but the event together.
“Chilling with buddies, cooking amazing food, and having a good time, this is what we do best. This is what it’s all about. What could be better?”
*Featured/top image: Mesquite Field was featured at the Chef Cooperative dinner at the Tejas Rodeo, creating a true San Antonio Experience. Photo by Tamara Casso .