Our first glimpse of the Chef Cooperative came at the opening of Dorćol Distillery in the SoFlo Art District back in December. My partner, Page Graham, and I were immediately intrigued by this out-of-the-ordinary assemblage of tasting stations with some of the finest culinary minds in town represented.
Bohanan’s, Boiler House, Ocho – it was an all-star culinary line-up and the tastes were sublime. The cocktails were awesome with bartenders visiting from 1919 and The Brooklynite. Wine from the award-winning Bending Branch Winery and cold brew from Alamo Beer Company.
We soon discovered the source of this heavenly mana was designed not only to tantalize our tastebuds, but to do good and give back to the community at the same time.
The Chef Cooperative was created to support the local “Farm to Table” movement. Once upon a time, there was a small and exclusive cadre of restaurateurs who subscribed to this philosophy – few to none in Texas.
Fast forward to 2014: San Antonio is brimming with a bold army of culinary innovators, and it seems that with the heady success of the Farmers Market at The Pearl, there’s a new opportunity to buy farm fresh produce every other weekend, all across the region. Folks are getting serious about their food, where it comes from, and how it is produced.
Just as the Pearl was about to explode with the festivities surrounding the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, we sat down to talk with Jeff White of Boiler House, Chris Cook of Farm2Fork Catering Company and Stephen Paprocki of Top Chefa and president of the Chef Cooperative currently leading the kitchen at NuStar at the Boiler House.
These gentlemen have that hard-earned look of never quite being rested enough, but blessed with that high-wire energy that keeps the best always in motion.
It was late afternoon, during a lull between the lunch and dinner shift. “Lull” is a deceptive word, because anyone in the business knows there is never any down-time, especially if you happen to be running a San Antonio hot-spot.
“This idea has been bumping around for years,” Paprocki says. “We were young sous chefs, getting together to blow off steam after shift, shooting some pool, downing a few beers. These are the kind of ideas we would knock around.”
What took so long?
Jeff White shoots back, “Well, now we have sous chefs and have built up our credibility and have a little power to make some of these ideas happen.”
He then slips off to the kitchen to ensure that prep for the evening is proceeding apace.
Their mission statement makes an eloquent and direct case: “As Chefs, we will plant the seeds of growth with local farmers and ranchers by buying local to develop strong farms, strong products, and wonderful seasonal menus. We will grow and nourish the roots of the Chef-Farmer relationship by promoting their product, venue, and growth through our restaurants, events, and support of the south Texas Farm to Table movement.”
Working as a pop-up concept, two sold-out dinners have already been hosted by Oro at The Emily Morgan (Chef Cook’s former kitchen) and The Boiler House, with proceeds directed to the small family outfits Peeler’s Farm in Floresville, and My Father’s Farm outside Seguin.
Doing good doesn’t stop with giving back to family farms and ranches.
Chef Cooperative is working with local nonprofit organizations, as well.
The Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas, San Antonio Film Festival, The Boys and Girls Club, San Antonio Food Bank, the San Antonio AIDS Foundation’s Chef of the Month Project — all are benefitting from the vision and largess of this culinary dream team.
“We do this free of charge. Our services are donated. We get as much donated in provisions as possible. Everyone has been incredibly generous,” Paprocki stresses the active teamwork of the group. “There should be more camaraderie in San Antonio and in general. It’s about teamwork and supporting each other. We are even looking to expand to new cities.”
Chris Cook says it so simply, “This is the true nature of hospitality.”
We recently experienced the hospitality first hand at the recent event for Green Spaces Alliance at the River Road Community Garden. The purpose was to raise funds specifically for the organization’s Community Gardens Project.
Eight different gardens contributed the fresh veggies for the colorful feast created by Paprocki and Cook at the Chinese New Year Garden Party.
In that spirit of giving, Mon Thai Bistro stepped up with a delicious fried rice, Aussie Bakery delivered with the sweets, and Eugene Simor of Alamo Beer made sure there was plenty of cold brew to go around.
“They were so supportive and accommodating for our fund raising,” according to Angela Hartsell, Community Gardens Program Manager. “We had about 150 attend and raised $3,200.”
The Alliance is in an important period. They are in the middle of a fund matching drive with the Kronkosky Foundation. They are ultimately working toward their big $50,000 goal. However, the foundation will match monies in $15,000 increments and they are very close to that mark now.
The organization runs on a tight budget, and the success of events like this with a low cost basis make a huge difference.
The Green Spaces Alliance now has 38 community gardens in their portfolio across the city. Originally created as the Bexar Land Trust in 2004, this nonprofit organization seeks to keep San Antonio green through a combination of preserving parcels of land over the strategic Edwards Aquifer and creating community gardens with a focus on low income urban areas. Education and inclusion is a big part of the Green Spaces mandate. In 2008, the board of directors made a change to the name.
“It was a strategic branding decision that better encapsulates all our programs rather than focusing on only one aspect,” Hartsell said.
There are many ways to get involved with these garden projects. Each have their own focus. Some grow for local food pantries, some for their elderly neighbors, and some operate as CSAs distributing shares of produce to their members. With the nonprofit’s help, you can identify which garden you would like to work with and get in touch with the team leaders of that garden.
One good way to check out the gardens would be the second annual SicloVerde, a bike ride touring eight community gardens, coming up April 5th. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to spend a day?
The key is full participation. “There are workdays, maintenance to be done, distribution, always work to be done in the garden! And beyond that, the program is so beneficial to the broad community. Of course, the food, but also the visual beauty of the green spaces in an urban setting.” Hartsell has a ready laugh, “Just no ‘drive-by’ picking. That’s not allowed.”
In addition to the urban gardens, The Alliance numerous ways to be involved with fun and informative events. Check out their very informative website and you will see there are so many ways to make our community a greener place.
As for the Chef’Cooperative? They are just getting started. And you foodies out there? Keep an eye on the website and an ear to the ground. You want to be on the list for one of their upcoming events. The San Antonio Film Festival‘s “Cocktails For Cinema” will be a blast. Dorćol Distillery is a must, and this event is a perfect opportunity.
Have fun. Do good. Repeat.
Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession brought changes, and now she’s back and discovering the art world of San Antonio, one happening at a time. The Rivard Report is one place that you can follow her trails, as is www.artblogsa.com.