Led back into the house, the guests settled in at two long, ornately laid tables. The dinner started with an heirloom tomato and goat cheese salad, and with Barnum expounding on the importance of local food production: “It’s important that we know where our food comes from. If it’s from offshore, beware, because that’s the bootstraps of our nation—being able to feed itself.”
The courses came with explanations of ingredients and provenance. Tempura–fried betel leaf topped with blue crab from nearby Card Sound; vichysoisse made from potatoes foraged from the nearby plot of land where the state of Maine tests potato varieties; grass–fed beef shank with a bignay–oyster mushroom reduction; and grilled cobia, which was provided by spearfisher Jorge Figueroa, who provides day–boat seafood to Michael’s Genuine.
The final course was carambola (or star fruit) pie with Rangpur lime–sapodilla gelato and a scattering of Bee Heaven Farm’s Mysore raspberries. Along with the pie came a glass of Barnum’s 2006 vintage bignay dessert wine. Syrupy and intense, it tasted like a tawny port gone native.
Even in his absence, Michael Schwartz loomed large that evening; most of the people who provided for the dinner also supply his restaurant. These farmer–restaurateur relationships tend to be tricky, often mutually critical, but there’s no one whom Schwartz trusts more to manage them than his forager, Ali Lauria.
Lauria started out with Michael’s as a reservationist in 2007, six years after moving to Miami from Buenos Aires. One day Lauria tagged along on a foraging outing with one of the chefs, and was immediately hooked. “I just went with him once, and that was it.” She eventually made foraging her full–time vocation.
As the link between the farmer and the chefs, Lauria has the opportunity to exert influence on both sides of the ledger: to bring her discoveries to chefs, influencing a day’s specials, and to convey feedback from the restaurants to the growers, who will sometimes alter their production accordingly.
At least twice a week, she takes Schwartz’s white Chevy van and makes the rounds through Homestead and the Redlands. Her first stop is usually PNS Farms. The owner, Alice Pena, a soft–spoken former bank vice president, took over the farm four years ago. PNS Farms is now known as much for their eggs as for their tropical fruits. Her hens shade themselves under guava trees, and peck and scratch in a yard covered with a bed of palmetto fronds. The mix of greens, grubs, grains, and guava make for intensely colored egg yolks that are one of the big attractions at Schwartz’s always–packed Sunday brunch.
At her next stop, Teena’s Pride, Lauria was warmly greeted by the big and burly Michael Borek, Teena’s son and farm manager. Small talk quickly turned to tomatoes (which were nearly done for the season) and to some crops new for the next year, like Romanesco cauliflower and purple carrots. After loading the van with heirloom tomatoes and herbs, she headed to her next stop, Burr’s Berry Farm, for the last strawberries of the season and a gloriously ripe black sapote. Asked about the sign at the back of the stand listing Ceylon cherry tomatoes, Kathy Burr Magee said that customers found them too unusual–looking, and they hadn’t sold well. If Magee could find any left, she’d call.
As Lauria passed Possum Trot and Bee Heaven, the cicada ringtone on her phone chirped steadily. First was a call from a grower who would soon have blue java bananas. Next was Magee; they’d gathered half a flat of the Ceylon tomatoes, if she was interested. She was.
There are days when, almost before hitting the kitchen, Lauria’s haul will hit the Web. Michael’s Genuine’s fits the modern model of restaurant as media empire. Its multiple Twitter streams and constantly updated blog hook directly into Miami’s roiling food scene, keeping the community abreast not just of daily specials but also of what new ingredients have come their way, from whom, and how they will be used in the restaurant.