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Donald Link On Building A Local Food Community

Donald Link is executive chef and president of Link Restaurant Group, home to seven restaurants in New Orleans. He has won several James Beard awards, including Best Chef South in 2007 for his work at Herbsaint, Best New Restaurant in 2014 with Pêche Seafood Grill, and Best American Cookbook in 2009 for Real Cajun: Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link’s Louisiana.

Why the fuck are we getting parsley from Peru?

That’s what I remember thinking when we first opened Herbsaint back in 2000. We were sorting through our shipment of ingredients, and there I was holding a bag of parsley shipped from 3,000 miles away.

“Nobody in Louisiana can grow this stuff?” I wondered.

People think of local New Orleans food as some of the best in the world, and rightfully so. But back then—holding some shitty-looking, half-wilted lettuce—I realized the quality of our actual ingredients left much to be desired.

It was so different from how I grew up. I was born in Lake Charles, about 200 miles west of New Orleans. My grandfather had a farm and a fishing camp. We would go out and pick what was in season, and we’d only eat what we could pick. Watermelons, peanuts, creamed corn, cucumbers, okra, snap peas and black eyed peas, blackberries, blueberries, and peaches.

That’s how it started for me—when I first fell in love with fresh ingredients and realized how much better they made a meal. That’s all I knew for the first 16 years of my life, because being a kid from Louisiana back then, you didn’t travel much.

One of Donald Link’s suppliers. Photo: Courtesy Link Group.

I remember the first trip I ever went on was to Redlands, California. We ate in a food hall and it was horrible. “You guys eat this?!” I remember thinking. It literally didn’t taste like anything. There was no flavor!

That’s the difference between crappy ingredients and the fresh, nutritious stuff you can buy locally. When people don’t care, you end up with the obligatory “vegetable medley” or broccoli from wherever. But I’ll never serve that at my restaurants. Because you can taste the difference.

I moved out to San Francisco when I was 23 and eventually got a job as a purchaser. I got to check out local farms that produced dairy, oysters, ducks, chicken, vegetables … everything! That’s all I did for months. It was amazing to see all of the local producers and small farms, and how they worked in this symbiotic way with the Bay Area’s restaurants. I was blown away. Restaurants were providing a market for these local farmers, and the local farmers were returning the favor with the best produce in the world.

Then, a little more than 20 years ago, I came back to New Orleans to open Herbsaint, and the local food scene was much different than San Francisco to say the least.

Boudin balls at Cochon. Photo: Courtesy Link Group.

It was grim. The fish came in old. The produce came in old. You could maybe find five types of locally grown vegetables, max.

I actually used to fly in giant boxes of produce from California just so Herbsaint had quality ingredients to work with. But that got very expensive—it was silly. There’s got to be someone around New Orleans who can grow this stuff, right?

It wasn’t just vegetables, either. We couldn’t find bacon that we liked.

We couldn’t even find bread we were happy with for our muffulettas. I think we must have gone through eight or nine types of muffuletta bread before we finally, mercifully found Gendusa’s Bakery, who made it better and cheaper than we could have done on our own. In my opinion, it’s the best muffuletta bread in existence.

Whole fish at Peche. Photo: Courtesy Link Group.

And that became the mission. If nobody here is selling something we need at the quality we want, then let’s find someone to make it. And if we can’t find someone to make it, let’s do it ourselves.

That’s how we first ended up with our charcuterie board. We can’t find the bacon we want? Let’s make it ourselves. And then we went into salami and everything else.

We had little wins like that—one by one. I was cleaning the grease traps during our first year at Herbsaint, for example, and some guy walks up and asks, “Where do you get your shrimp from?” I told him, and he was like, “Well, I’m a local shrimper and I can get you fresh shrimp.”

Of course, the worry with a local guy is that maybe I won’t be able to get as much as I want, when I want it, but he promised he can get me fresh shrimp every day. He brought some for me to try. It was great, and now here we are 20 years later. His name is Dino Pertuit. I don’t have to clean grease traps anymore, but Dino’s still bringing us fresh shrimp. Last I checked we’re buying something like $300,000 in shrimp from him every year.

The same thing slowly started to happen with produce. Not long after I found myself cursing our parsley from Peru, the nearby Association for Retarded Citizens mentioned they had a small herb garden and asked if they could sell some to us.

Naturally I said yes. It was way better than the crap being shipped to us. Soon, they were like, “Well, what else can we grow for you?”

So we got some seed catalogues out. We looked through it together, and I remember picking out these criolla de cocina peppers. They grow so easily here, and they’re not super hot, but they have a great flavor. That’s the kind of stuff we wanted more of, but nobody was growing them in the area. We picked out a few things like that.

Key lime pie at Peche. Photo: Courtesy Link Group.

But we wanted more. So we started going to farmers markets and asking farmers there if they could start growing for us.

They’d have produce at the market, and I’d literally try to buy it all from them. I guess they had other customers or something, because they wouldn’t do it, so I’d follow up by asking if they’d just grow more for us moving forward.

And that brought up some interesting trust issues I didn’t anticipate. A lot of farmers asked some version of, “Are you sure you’ll buy everything you say you will?”

I guess it sometimes happened that a restaurant would ask a farmer to grow, for example, 100 pounds of squash, but then would only end up buying a fraction of it. That really screws the farmer. At first, producers I was trying to work with seemed suspicious that I’d follow through.

But I was like, “Oh, no, I’ll buy it all. I promise you that. We need it!” So we made commitments, and various farmers agreed to grow what we needed. And, honestly, they’re such a big part of the quality of the food that our restaurants serve that I want to help them whenever I can. If they’ve got extra zucchini, we’ll buy it and find some way to use it.

You’ll notice that some of our menu items don’t even list the veggies that come with the dish. That’s because we change it based on what our farmers are growing. Obviously it has to make sense with the entree’s flavor profile, but also we want it to be seasonal because that’s what’s going to be most delicious.

One by one we found additional farmers to partner with. Bill Ryles was one of those farmers we met a handful of years later at another market. We were buying eggs, milk and cheese from him for Herbsaint, as well as for our newer restaurant, Cochon.

One day, he invited us to come visit his farm. He had a few goats and a couple of lambs, but he was also talking about raising pigs. That’s something we were definitely in the market for given that “cochon” is a French word for “pig.”

I was looking to design a breed of pig that would work best with our restaurant, and I learned more about pigs during that time than I’d ever wanted to. We thought about litter size, and gestation periods, and we wanted a certain amount of back fat—all sorts of details! I told Bill what I wanted, and he agreed to raise them for us.

“But how many will you actually need from me?” he asked, because—like I said—these producers are screwed if we don’t honor our commitments.

When COVID hit, that was a big test for the trust we have with our local farmers. During a normal year, March is peak time in New Orleans. Mardi Gras just passed, and all of the spring festivals like Jazz Fest are around the corner.

March 15, 2020, was one of our busiest days of the year, and we were preparing for many more busy days to come. So were our farmers.

Then, a day later, restaurants were forced to shutter because of the pandemic. Suddenly we had very few customers to sell food to. But that didn’t change the fact that our producers were already harvesting crops and raising the pigs we’d requested months ago.

So we still honored those commitments to the farmers we work with because it was the right thing to do.

We did about 3,500 free meals per week for those affected by the COVID shutdown, as well as to keep supporting our local farmers and fishermen by buying their products. We adjusted our menus to make it fit with what our suppliers had an excess of.

It’s the same thing that happened after Hurricane Katrina. Our shrimper’s boat made it through okay, and he had tons of shrimp. So when we opened back up, we started with a shrimp-heavy menu to help him sell what he had.

Having producers know they can depend on us to buy what we say we will is a large part of what helps a local food community grow. That approach has been paying big dividends here, especially over the last five to seven years.

Not only do our seven restaurants work with local farmers and fishermen, but so do an increasing number of restaurants throughout the city. The more that happens, the more of a market there’s going to be for new producers to grow and fish and raise animals.

To navigate the growing community, we hired a forager whose job it was to be a centralized purchaser for all our restaurants. She was so familiar with the region’s farms that she knew where to get the exact type of arugula or squash or whatever else our chefs prefer. She knew that Timmy Perilloux at Perilloux Farm had the biggest beets, peppers, and tomatoes—he jokes it’s because of the power lines that run across his property—and she knew our chefs love salad greens from Compostella Farm.

There’s no more guessing. We talk about varieties, crop sizes, and planting cycles three seasons in advance. We know exactly how much of each ingredient we need to satisfy our diners, and our farmers know exactly how much they need to grow to help us make that happen.

It’s an evolution that continues to this day. Now New Orleans has local food distributors like JV Foods who purchase from our regional farms and sell directly to restaurants as well as—increasingly during the pandemic—to individuals. That gives local producers even more confidence, plus another avenue to reach customers.

At our restaurants, we’re continuing to evolve as well. We strive to get more local, but we’re not perfect yet. Our chicken and shrimp are 100 percent local. Our fish is almost 100 percent, except we do have one salmon dish at Herbsaint. Butter and eggs are almost all local, but you can’t get croissant butter around here for baking yet. And our produce is now well over 50 percent local, which is huge growth from where we started.

Cattle are still a tricky one to maneuver. If we work with a local cattle farmer because we want filets, each cow only gives us one. That still leaves 400 pounds of other parts of the cow that the farmer has to find a home for. Unfortunately, our region doesn’t have a large enough market yet to make use of it all.

Pigs have a similar problem. We buy four to eight whole hogs each week. That’s something like 2,500 pounds of pig, but it’s not nearly as much pork shoulder as we need. So we end up buying another 1,000 pounds of shoulder from farmers outside the region to make sure our supply matches our demand for each section of the pig we use.

So our local food community is still evolving, but we’ve come such an incredibly long way in the last two decades. The governor of Louisiana just announced he’s dropping the capacity restrictions on restaurants in the state, so we’re excited to safely continue to grow back to full capacity.

It won’t be easy, but we have a food community we didn’t have when Herbsaint first opened more than two decades ago. Back when I started, it was really only the seafood you could from nearby vendors. Today, I’m proud to report that even the parsley is local.