Foraging For Flavor

A look at the woman behind our local produce revolution — Ashley Locklear
Illustrations by Tony Healey
A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.

Almost 20 years ago, Chef Donald Link could be found eagerly awaiting the sound of the opening bell at the Crescent City Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. Link always arrived early to see who had the best fresh produce for his new restaurant, Herbsaint. Not happy with the limited local offerings, he began to challenge the farmers he befriended there with packets of seeds for ingredients he’d learned to love in California but couldn’t find here — especially the criolla sella pepper.

Mild, sweet, criolla sella peppers are such an important part of Link’s flavor palette that when he travels he packs the ingredient in the form of dehydrated dust. A full decade later, when Link met a woman named Ashley Locklear, he was still in search of a reliable local criolla sella source.

A Florida native, Locklear arrived in New Orleans as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker assigned to the fledgling Hollygrove Market in 2008. Her first task there was to develop a community-supported agriculture (CSA) box subscription program with area farmers.

Locklear quickly discovered that restaurant chefs with great buying capacity were eager to buy the specialty produce she sourced for the CSA and the market began offering a special opportunity for chefs on Fridays to enjoy first pick of the crops before the boxes were assembled. Chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski — buying for their restaurants, Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher — became some of Locklear’s best customers.

The young AmeriCorps volunteer says she was ready to move on when a job listing caught her eye.

The Spotted Pig, a restaurant in New York City’s West Village, was advertising for a forager. Not quite sure what that meant, Locklear investigated and discovered it was exactly the work she’d become so proficient in at Hollygrove.

At the time, there was very little purchasing consolidation among the Link restaurants. Locklear took the job description to Link and Stryjewski, explaining the convenience and economy of scale she could provide for them as an in-house forager. Impressed with her initiative, they gave foraging a try. Locklear was soon scouring the countryside in search of Link’s two greatest requests – quality salad greens and criolla sella peppers.

During farm visits, Locklear recruited farmers interested in seed trialing, leaving behind seed packets with the promise to buy everything that would grow. To date, over 50 varieties have been trialed, accompanied by detailed notes for each seed type grown at each farm. From an original core group of five farms, today, 20 farms work with Locklear on a seasonal basis. Working from New Orleans, she uses the various growing climates available within a 250-mile radius from the city when planning out crops.

The Link Group currently invests over $100,000 annually in the local agricultural economy, but success can’t be measured in dollars alone. Having a forager, said Link, has added immeasurable creativity to not just the Link Group restaurants: “Ashley’s exhaustive work has impacted the variety of local produce available for everyone,” said Link.

There have been some surprises along the way, such as with Folsom-based farmer Jim Mizell. Mizell was the first local farmer to field grow Italian San Marzano tomatoes, and what success he had! Locklear got the call that 1,200 pounds of tomatoes were ripe and ready to go – all at one time. Luckily, San Marzanos can age well. Locklear also routinely helps farmers connect with other restaurants to make sure nothing goes to waste.

Locklear’s influence is evident as well at Compostella Farms in Independence, Louisiana.  Madeline Yoste and Timothy Robb had big dreams of growing heirloom tomatoes, along with other rare varieties, when Locklear explained Link’s quest for salad greens.

“The available salad mix was too wimpy,” Link said. “I want salad that’s lofty on the plate and delivers some crunch!” Standing orders for over 100 pounds a week from the Link Restaurant Group alone has made salad mix the focus of Compostella Farms’ expanding business today.  

Link’s empire will expand in April 2019 with the addition of Gianna — an Italian restaurant he’s set to open on 700 Magazine Street with Rebecca Wilcomb, the James Beard Award-winning chef of Herbsaint. With Locklear’s encouragement, Yoste and Robb are experimenting with cellaring radicchio and other chicories to ensure that Gianna’s ingredients will taste authentically Italian, but will always be locally grown.


Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.


 

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