Most businesses want to catch the latest trend — but Eberhard Müller tries his best to stay several laps ahead of any wildly popular fad. By the time something reaches that stage, it has become a ho-hum yawner to the chefs who are his top customers.
Take a walk around his blocks of vegetables growing within earshot of the roaring cars practicing on Sebring, Florida’s famous racetrack, and you’ll come across crops rarely seen in the U.S. In fact, many Americans have never heard of some of them: mache, wild arugula, black kale, knob celery, fine leaf frisee and treviso chicory, and Mizuna mustard — all growing among more familiar baby head lettuce, carrots and leeks.
These delicacies wind up in the kitchens of some of the nation’s top chefs in New York City’s high-dollar restaurants. Müller knows what these renowned, highly competitive chefs want because for more than three decades he was one of them. He was executive chef at Le Bernardin, Lutece and Bayard’s, considered by food critics to be among the nation’s top tier restaurants, as well as Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center.
For several years, he’s been a full-time farmer, growing an array of carefully selected vegetables on Long Island, and is now in his fourth year turning out 180 acres of winter vegetables in Florida. After three winters working near Belle Glade, this year he moved to land owned by Star Farms outside Sebring.
“My customers want year-round supply,”he says, “and this is the only way to do it.”
As a chef, Müller was known to be obsessive about serving the freshest possible ingredients. He would personally go to Maine to check out the source of his fish or to Nantucket to visit a scallops supplier.
Perpetually disappointed with the freshness of vegetables shipped from California, at one point he had the restaurant fly produce direct from the West Coast to New York — which proved to be expensive, and unsatisfactory as well. He began to think the only way to get the freshest possible produce would be to grow it himself.
One evening in 1996, Paulette Satur, a wine consultant who grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm and had degrees from Penn State in both horticulture and plant physiology, celebrated a friend’s birthday at Lutece.
Müller visited their table several times. She was interested in selling her company’s wine to the restaurant. Müller’s interest, however, transcended food and wine, and before long they were dating. A few months later, they were engaged and looking for land. She wanted to farm, as did Müller, and in 1997, they found what they wanted on Long Island’s North Fork. They named it Satur Farms.
Supplied own restaurants
“I wanted to supply my two restaurants,”he says, “and we did. That first year we grew everything you could imagine: onions, carrots, radishes, tomatoes and other things — name it, and we had it.
“Paulette had good access to restaurants in New York because she sold wine to them. She would go to them and they would want our vegetables. Other chefs were also curious about what I was doing and began to use our product because they saw we had quality.
“On Saturday night, we would drive to the farm on Long Island and harvest on Sunday. Then on Monday morning, we’d finish harvesting, load the produce in our car and drop it off at the restaurants. After a while, we decided this was going to kill us pretty fast. What should we do? Hire someone to help?”
They began adding acreage and now grow 180 acres of vegetables on Long Island plus that much more in Florida.
“We decided we either had to downsize or go full scale because it had become a business. I had to decide whether to stay in the restaurant business or go full-time with the farm. At that point, I’d been in the restaurant business close to 40 years. I decided it was time for a change.”
Although his career had been in restaurants, Müller did have some background in agriculture. He grew up in Nagold, a very small town in Germany’s Black Forest. His father, a baker, also had 60 acres of fruit trees and used the fruit in his pies, cakes and tarts. Müller helped care for the trees and, at the same time, absorbed a lot from observing European agriculture.
“Take the Swiss dairy farmers for an example. From their milk, they make cheese, then sell it to individuals. In a way, we’re following the European model, although the agriculture model there has changed, too. But there are still small farmers there who do a lot of individual business. We do it the same way they’ve been doing it.”
Since freshness countsfor just about everything, in Müller’s view, he gets his Florida produce to New York fast. After harvest, it is vacuum cooled, then trucked to his customers as quickly as possible.
“Nothing is stored,” he says. “The trucker leaves here and in 24 hours, he’s in New York.”
The produce is delivered to Müller’s Long Island facility, and then goes to his New York customers as quickly as possible.
“The turnaround we offer is unmatched,” he says. “Even the wholesalers know the difference. The shelf life is better — the product is alive, it’s vibrant.”
About 40 percent of his products now go to New York restaurants, another 40 percent is sold to wholesalers and 20 percent goes directly to retail stores.
“Within 48 hours after we harvest it here, the wholesalers can get our product to their customers,” he says. “As for quality, there’s no comparison; we’re about as fast to the customer as we can be.”
Satur’s diversity of crops helps sales, as well.
“We’re growing a lot of crops that, relatively speaking, are not commercialized, aren’t available in huge quantities commercially. A lot are not available commercially yet.
“Take our radicchio, our leaf chicory. It’s an elongated variety called treviso, which has very good demand from our customers — and the pricing is very good. That’s the kind of thing we want to grow. Our customers are people who trust my judgment about what they should use.”
Müller was one of the firstto grow Yukon Gold potatoes, which he produced on his Long Island farms and, early on, sold for top prices. Once the variety became a commodity, he stopped planting it.
All about being niche grower
“I’m interested in the novelties, stuff no one grows. This is all about being a niche grower” he says.
He still travels a good deal to see what growers in other parts of the world are developing that might interest U.S. buyers.
“Chefs are always interested in what the next hot thing will be, and so am I. I have to anticipate how tastes may change.”
When he began farming, Müller used travel to educate himself about agricultural techniques.
“I still go to Germany whenever I can to see what they’re doing on their farms. There are some very good farmers there. When I began to farm, I worked in Morocco with two growers from Germany, two winter seasons for four to six weeks.
“I wanted to see and to learn. I knew how to make salad dressing and how to make an omelet but not how to grow a head of lettuce. I need to know many things so I did a lot of learning in those early years,” he says.
He’s enthusiasticabout farmingin Florida, even though moving the operation to Sebring presented an unexpected hurdle. The fields had been used for growing shallow-rooted turf. When they were plowed, he discovered partically decayed tree trunks and roots not far undr the surface, all of which had to be removed.
That put the Sebring farm a couple of months behind schedule, and work still continues pulling out the debris.
“This is a good place to farm, though,”
he says. “They say this is the deepest muck area anywhere in the world. That’s pretty amazing. Organic matter is high, about 8 percent. The soil pH is very low, though, so we have to add lime to raise the level.
“We got a deep subsoiler in for the buried tree trunks and roots. For two months we didn’t even plant, so, in a sense, that killed the whole season here.
“We’ve also found it’s a little colder here than at Belle Glade, so we don’t get the fast growth we did there. Farming here this year has been very, very, very challenging and cost me a lot of money — but we’re going to work it all out,” Müller says.