Seriously Local: Florida's Premier Farm Foragers
By Omar Sommereyns
Seriously Local owner Juan Rochaix at Miami’s G.R.O.W., a small urban farm on NW 74th Avenue
On a bright, early weekday morning, a Freightliner truck emblazoned with popping, multicolored works of graffiti comes to a halt on upper Biscayne Boulevard. It belongs to Juan Rochaix, who’s dropping off heirloom tomatoes and strawberries at Red Light Little River—Kris Wessel’s acclaimed regional dining lounge—before embarking on a 10-hour trek to North Florida and back down to Miami.
The reason for the long-haul journey north is Seriously Local, the food foraging company—or rather a food sourcing service—44-year-old Rochaix co-owns and runs with partner Elke Zabinski. The company’s mission: to find the best, most sustainable, and ethically raised regional produce, meat, and fowl in the state of Florida, and distribute it to Miami’s growing restaurant scene, one desiring not only farm-to-table freshness, but also organic and ethically produced goods. The movement may first have gained a significant foothold with the success of the Design District’s Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, but is now an essential element at eateries such as Gigi, Sustain Restaurant + Bar, Pubbelly, Mandolin Aegean Bistro, The River Seafood & Oyster Bar, the Corner, and the new Bianca at the Delano.
Born in Cali, Colombia, Rochaix, grew up all over South America before attending high school in Miami and college in Boston. He returned south in the 1990s to open a high-end Mexican restaurant in Coral Gables called Las Puertas. As a restaurateur, one of his biggest frustrations was the quality and hassle associated with buying produce from out-of-state and other countries. It wasn’t efficient and didn’t make sense. “I needed good cilantro and good tomatoes, and all I got was the stuff that was beat up from the trip from California and Mexico,” he says, as we drive north to Ocala on the Florida Turnpike. Dealing with the inferior produce forced him to rethink the entire food sourcing chain in Miami. “I wanted to find local options—not in the Miami area necessarily, but throughout Florida,” he says.
“When we started in the summer of 2010, it seemed there weren’t enough channels to help connect small farms around Florida with the greater Miami restaurant scene. I did research, talked to restaurant owners, people in the food distribution business, and farm owners who would let me know about a really good cheese guy who would link me with a great veggies guy, and so on. To make my mark, I had to find stuff that others weren’t bringing down here. So I sought out places up north and found there was a lot of growth, in terms of small farms and people doing unique, interesting things, in Palm Beach and on the west coast of Florida for produce like greens, corn, citrus, lettuces, tropical fruit, and squash, and way out north in Ocala for grass-fed beef.”
After spending 20 years in the restaurant business, both as an owner and managing consultant, Rochaix now relishes his role as a conduit between small-scale, humane, and sustainable farmers and like-minded chefs. He started with some seed money (around $3,000) and bought the truck (then sans graffiti) from friend Ken Lyon of Fratelli Lyon, the Italian restaurant in the Design District, and Lyon & Lyon catering (also one of Rochaix’s clients). Overhead is low since he currently has neither an office nor employees. And despite two decades on the culinary scene, he’s had to learn an entirely new side of the business, one that encompasses local farming, logistics, distribution, state politics, and why certain things will grow well in some places and not others.
Rochaix eschews “conventional” large chemical- and antibiotic-intensive farms, instead seeking out producers dedicated to ethical and essentially organic production. Though some are certified organic, others are not. He refers to them as “unconventional,” in that they follow many of the federal government’s organic guidelines, but forgo the bureaucratic steps, costs, and red tape associated with certification.
“I’ve seen many small farmers who don’t want to pay for the government to come in and dictate whether or not what they’re doing is ‘organic,’ even though it may very well be,” he points out. “I do the long drives so I can spend time with the farmers and get to know them. And the chefs realize I’m driving around, interacting with the farmers directly, so I become an arm and an eye for what’s out there.”
After several hours of our drive north, past Tampa, the land shifts from tropical to horse and cattle country—vast meadows and ranches covered in sundry grasses. We arrive at the Florida Fresh Meat Company, a USDA-inspected meat producer in Ocala, shaded by massive oak trees with drooping garlands of Spanish moss. Owner and director Jan Costa, 54—a husky-voiced Bronx native—greets us jovially and says that Florida Fresh Meat is the antithesis of an industrialized feedlot center: All the beef, lamb, pork, duck, goat, and chicken processed here are hormone- and antibiotic-free, humanely treated, and pasture-raised on farms located within 150 miles. Only about 20 animals can be processed per day (compared to thousands in big facilities in other states, like in the Corn Belt), and they’re killed as swiftly and painlessly as possible, then processed in a small cutting room and packaged.
“A lot of the pork you’re getting [in Miami] is from these grotesquely fat pigs processed in Dade County,” Rochaix says. “They don’t exercise; they’re stuck in a pen.” While he understands these animals are deliberately made overweight, Rochaix says the pigs up north simply live a better life. “They’re not gorged or force-fed, or just raised to get as fat as possible so they can get killed more quickly. It’s inhumane, and they’re suffering until the last breath. Pigs are like humans—when they get depressed, they eat a lot. But here it’s a different approach; it’s a lean pork, at least 50 to 60 pounds lighter [per animal], and a happy pork, treated in the right way.”
Costa explains that the non-corn- and non-grass-fed cattle they get from local ranches is raised on clover, wheat, rye, perennial peanut, millet, and other high-end forage. “It’s also a small carbon footprint in terms of what we’re doing here,” he adds. “From the time the animals are raised within a 150-mile radius at the different farms, and come here and get into our butcher shop, there are very few stops in between, so that gives us the ability to have real quality control [like a small clinic] before the meat goes to the public.”
When asked whether his meats are certified organic, Costa scoffs, “No, we don’t pay the fee. The government controls the label now, and it hasn’t done the word justice. The standards are lower, and it’s just not worth the expense, the auditing, the whole effort. But it doesn’t matter because the farmers who believe in the notion of organic are now saying, ‘Screw it, my principles are organic, and that’s all I care about.’”
Once Rochaix has made his pick-up—two whole goats for Mandolin, one whole lamb for NeMesis Urban Bistro, and one whole pig for Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (which should all get to the restaurants in about six hours if delivered on the same day)—we’re headed to Ocoee, just east of Orlando, to join farmer/owner Dale Volkert at Lake Meadow Naturals, a farm specializing in cage-free chicken, duck, and various eggs. On the way, Rochaix tells me, in his characteristically cool manner, “Obviously we just drove a truck upstate—not great for the carbon footprint. But you have to be realistic, too. You can’t find this kind of grass-fed meat in South Florida, so you have to come up here. The soil is deeper and the grass areas are wider and richer. So you get a different animal. It’s not force-fed, it’s gamier, it’s leaner, and you digest it better. It’s what nature intended.”
On other days and routes, Rochaix will swing by farms in Palm Beach County for produce, or towns in central Florida such as Zellwood for sweet corn. Now entering Lake Meadow, the scene is idyllic, replete with herb gardens, beehives, peach orchards, banana-yellow henhouses, and a home overlooking a field of geese. Volkert, 60, is a former executive, though you wouldn’t guess it by the looks of his brown Carhartt overalls, cap, and boots. There’s a sincere rapport between the two men, as Volkert was actually one of the first farmers Rochaix worked with when starting out. He shows us a new batch of quail eggs and mentions a coyote problem. All the birds are fed natural grains, and the eggs are hand-washed, hand-graded, and hand-packed.
Like the Florida Fresh Meat Company, Lake Meadow isn’t certified, but follows organic practices. “In fact, we give our birds more space than the organic standard, and of course we don’t use pesticides or herbicides,” Volkert says. “In addition to feeding them local grains, they’re outside most of the day. Our customers and chefs come here to see our chickens, how we take care of them, and that’s what they really want.”
A few days later, Rochaix steers his signature truck downtown through a gate to the loading area behind the Miami Culinary Institute. We’re here to drop off goods at Tuyo, Norman Van Aken’s rooftop restaurant with a prime view of the Freedom Tower and Biscayne Bay. Rochaix presents chef de cuisine Jeffrey Brana with some boutique hot peppers uniquely hued in half-green, half-dark-purple from the Fashionable Farmer in the Redlands. Before we leave, Brana comes down to poke around inside the refrigerated compartments of the truck, eventually taking some broilers (young chickens), eggs, strawberries, green oak lettuce, and crunchy baby romaine. He also appreciates the value of buying local—a term, he feels, should extend to the greater state of Florida.
While the city offers a wealth of beautiful produce 30 to 45 minutes south of metro Miami, there are products that are unavailable in Miami and the surrounding areas, says the 37-year-old Brana. “We do have incredible resources that people don’t know about. You just have to search the state for them,” he says. “When you aren’t getting stuff that’s sourced close to home [in-state], it isn’t picked at its optimum ripeness and just doesn’t have that sun-kissed quality. So you won’t capture the essence of that product. Take oranges—you can get some from a produce company in California, but the taste will be insipid compared to the juicy intensity and sheer voluptuousness of oranges that were grown within 100 to 150 miles from you. We have people like Juan to help us on that, bringing us exciting food on a sometimes daily basis.”
Following a stop on the Miami River at Jungle Walls, where we try some herbs owner Peter Kastan is growing on small, vertical, manmade stands (including some very flavorful chocolate mint), we drive to the Miami G.R.O.W. (Green Railroad Organic Workshop), just west of the Miami International Airport. An independent nonprofit urban farm sponsored and supported by major produce and herb company Rock Garden, it sits on Flagler-owned railroad land—a burst of green beds spread across two acres between rows of nondescript warehouses. They offer education programs for kids and product for chefs, distributors, and urban foragers. As Rochaix and I walk the property, we’re treated to piquant aromas of mustard greens, chervil, sage, sorrel, and lemon verbena. Here, everything is certified organic.
Photography by Presscott McDonald