Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Being the Executive Director for Portland Farmer's Market, what are some typical day-to-day tasks in operating this 25-year-old food staple?
Overall , my goal has been to make sure that the market has a great strategic multi-year plan. We have 16 staff who run 7 markets and our flagship market. There is such a wide variety of tasks from day to day. I support the board of directors, operations, fundraising and marketing. I also get to enjoy comradery with the vendors and farmers we work with. It's mostly an office job and I'm in front of the computer a lot doing budgeting and coordinating but when I see the outcome of all that at these markets, it's so worth it.
What do you believe is the major appeal of the market for farmers and chefs?
I think it comes down to three primary ingredients: quality, the variety of food available and then the real magic is in the relationships. Farmers and chefs become excited about doing their work when they have a strong mutual respect among one another and can work well together. They take time to learn a lot about each other like what their needs and capacities are and then the chef can ask the farmer for a certain variety of something to be grown, building a synergistic and economically viable relationship. Market shoppers can trust that they’ll find quality products through these relationships, meaning they’ll be taking home the freshest, most sustainably grown foods and ingredients with great flavors.
McCormick oversees processing, distribution & storage of resources to ensure quality. How do you go about sourcing quality products for the market?
It's very simple and boils down to one thing: FLAVOR. I’ve been cooking for 25 years now and what makes a dish great is having flavor resonate with the person who is eating it. The way of getting the best flavor out of that dish is having the food you make it with be as close to the restaurant as possible because it needs to be at its freshest. If every raw ingredient you bring in is as fresh as it can be, it’s easy.
Explain the role food and flavor trends play in restaurant concept and menu development.
We require that our vendors source their raw ingredients from local farms. In fact, we have regulations in place that say at least 25% of these ingredients must come from these local growers and ranchers. This keeps the community aspect among our various vendors very tight. More than 80% of them actually come from within 100 miles of Portland, the furthest ones mostly being the actual ranchers.
How do those wanting to be part of the Portland Farmer's Market take steps toward having helpful processes for improving quality, sourcing & sustainability?
They already follow the requirement in place that says participating farmers can only bring with them what they raised or grew on their own land. This keeps things authentic, transparent and generally without issues.
When it comes to prepared, processed or hot foods at our market, we work closely with the vendors to make sure that they have access to local ingredient resources and processes.
In your experience, how do you see the quality & sustainability of food improving the foodservice industry?
In Portland, we like to think we're unique as locally grown is the actual ingredient of choice where we live and eat. Because of this, there are very few chains; many reataurant chefs are also restaurant owners. Many schools, hospitals and other institutions have built relationships with local growers and distributors to improve the quality of the food that they serve; it's really blossoming.
Is it important for people to be aware of where food comes from & how it gets to their table? Why do you believe they should care?
I believe people should care because food is our fuel; garbage in, garbage out. The quality of our fuel effects the quality of our health, emotions, energy and how we see the world.
Farmer's markets have freshest food at the highest level of nutritional value. This food hasn't sat in a truck very long or been frozen for preservation so no nutritional value has been lost. Eating fresh market food is truly the best way to really feel alive.
From your experience with the Portland Farmer's Market, what are some trending offerings you've noticed right now?
This summer, I noticed that edible flowers on salads and as garnishes on savory dishes were really popular, plus they're both beautiful and delicious. Meanwhile, kale is mostly over as a trend but Padron Peppers are still hanging on.
We have a few new things coming too. In the northwest, farms have started growing varieties of tea leaves, something unique to our location. Most tea has come from China so I think it will be wonderful and tasty to have more locally sourced options for drinking our tea.
Going back to food, quinoa is starting to be grown in Oregon so rather than importing it, we'll get to eat locally grown quinoa instead. That's a great advancement to me.