Purely Delicious

By Megan McDonald Photography by Phillippe Diederich April 1, 2009

Saturdays at the downtown Sarasota farmer’s market are a treat for the senses. People bustle down Lemon Avenue, clutching bouquets of fresh flowers, bags of vegetables, and Styrofoam cups filled with hot coffee. Neighbors stop each other in the street to say hello and compare purchases, and dogs—which, some Saturdays, almost outnumber people—go nose to nose with each other, tails wagging.



Bookending Lemon Avenue are sprawling produce stands, tables overflowing with brightly colored fruits and vegetables—everything from plump red tomatoes to sunshine-colored citrus. In the last few years, the popularity of the market has exploded, and now customers meander, elbow to elbow, through the makeshift aisles, picking and choosing their items with care.



And on most Saturday mornings, one of the city’s culinary stars—the Ritz-Carlton’s chef de cuisine, Greg Howe—can be found among the crowd, picking out the freshest local produce for his menus at the Ritz’s award-winning Vernona restaurant. Howe knows the ins and outs of the market and its products—he can palm a tomato and tell whether the flavor and texture will work in whatever dish he’s planning—and his passion for food, particularly locally grown food, is evident from the way his face lights up when he talks about it. (Howe is so passionate about organic growing, in fact, that he and his young son are trying to grow their own produce at home.)

            So it was only natural that, in late January, the Ritz—under the guidance of Howe and director of public relations Suzanne Willis—put together a “market lunch,” a morning that started with Howe and his sous chef, Frederic Chartier, taking a group to the farmer’s market and shopping for food. Then they returned to the Ritz, where the students watched the chefs whip up a healthy lunch in Vernona’s semi-private dining room.     The day starts out on a high note at the Ritz-Carlton (where the class meets before heading to the market) with Howe’s fresh pomegranate and blueberry smoothies, blended with organic lemon yogurt. As the guests sip their drinks, the chef lays out the day’s menu. First, a beet salad, made almost entirely of farmer’s market-fresh produce. Next, wahoo, a tropical white fish similar to swordfish, with vegetables. Finally, dessert, the pièce de résistance: authentic French toast, or pain perdu (“lost bread”), made of homemade brioche. With the exception of the fish, the goat cheese for the salad and the brioche, all of the food would be purchased at the market and then prepared fresh at the Ritz.



Howe has a special affinity for the Sarasota farmer’s market—and for supporting local growers, particularly in a tough economic climate. “Vernona’s first option is to buy locally,” he says. “In a way, that’s a theme of the hotel—to contribute to the local economy. Keeping the money here in Sarasota is part of our stand as a company.”

            And Sarasota is a perfect place to buy and sell homegrown food, with a preponderance of older, sophisticated people who care about health and can afford to eat well, and more local farms than may first meet the eye. From small, family-run farms to global organic wholesalers like Mitch Blumenthal’s Global Organics, the city is a burgeoning center of the local, sustainable, organic food movement.

            Blumenthal works closely with Howe and the Ritz-Carlton; Howe says he buys “about seven things from Global Organics—everything from organic popcorn to Thumbelina carrots to lemongrass.” Blumenthal takes individual orders from all his customers, which means that Howe and other restaurateurs who work with him can create original and constantly changing menus that reflect what’s new and fresh, thanks to Global Organics’ connections and expertise. Blumenthal has his own farm, but if he isn’t able to grow a product, he’ll procure it from someone who can. Howe also works with food broker John Matthews, who responded to the growing demand for local produce by starting the Suncoast Food Alliance last year to serve as a go-between for farms and restaurants.



“Though we’re not really seeing any new organic farms in Sarasota County, there’s a lot more local farming going on,” Blumenthal says. “Plus, restaurants here are promoting local and organic food on their menus, so we’re doing well. And Chef Howe has got a great reputation—he’s getting the locals involved.”

            After finishing their smoothies, the students climb into the hotel’s Escalade and arrive at the farmer’s market a few minutes later. Howe gathers the group near the produce stand at Lemon and First Street. It’s 9:30 a.m. and the street is packed with shoppers. Though the farmer’s market is open until 1 p.m., it hits its peak between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.

             As the group crowds around him, Howe is quick to point out that not all vegetables are created equal—there’s a difference between produce grown for commercial use and produce that comes from smaller, local farms. Locally, Howe says, the Myakka area is a good agricultural source—the watercress he’ll be using for the beet salad was born there, and the tomatoes he’s considering are from Ruskin. The deep red strawberries he’ll feature with the French toast are from Plant City—which, of course, is world-famous for its Strawberry Festival.

            While he and Chartier choose their produce, Howe fires off tips about how to choose the best product and check for freshness. “You can tell whether or not beets are fresh by their tops, and whether or not they have a good shape,” he explains, holding up an example. (The tops are, indeed, leafy, green and fresh—no wilted or shriveled leaves.) He also shares some chef’s tips. For example, when it comes to cooking root vegetables, like beets and turnips, “there’s no such thing as al dente,” he says.



Howe, who didn’t go to culinary school—he gained his experience through working his way up in restaurants—is a natural teacher. He has an easy, laid-back manner and a way of making food accessible to even the most clueless cooks, both by speaking simply—no grandiose culinary terminology here—and showing students what he’s talking about. Scooping up a watermelon radish—a green radish with a pink heart—he slices it in half and passes it around for the class to see. Looking at the vegetable as Howe talks about how he plans on using it later in the day helps cement the connection.

            After purchasing the items he needs from that produce stand, Howe and the group move down a few stands to Worden Farm, a Punta Gorda-based farm that grows certified organic produce. Run by Chris Worden and his wife, Eva, the farm grows more than 50 different kinds of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. The Wednesday-morning Punta Gorda farmer’s market and the downtown Sarasota market are the only two Chris and Eva have time to attend—their growing season is so plentiful that they have to pick and choose. The farm also partners with the Ritz and several other area restaurants.



Howe is enthusiastic about the availability of organic produce at farms such as Blumenthal’s and the Wordens’. “Organics have small production cycles, and get more nutrients from the soil in the fields,” he says. “And the products that are sold here show that. Too often, [vegetables] are grown in mass production for the ‘supermarket culture’ and lose their health value and flavor because they’re grown in nutrient-depleted ground.”

            Worden, who grew up on his family’s farm and has college-level degrees in agricultural studies, echoes that sentiment. “I like working with the soil and the natural environments,” he says. “[When you grow organically,] you’re not working against those elements as much as you are in conventional agriculture. It’s a more natural process.” And he says that the number of people buying organic at the Sarasota farmer’s market is increasing. “We’re definitely seeing more people, and it’s nice to have the support of local restaurants.”



As Howe stands in front of the Wordens’ stand, discussing the watercress he’ll be using for the salad and examining the leafy green spearmint he’s thinking of using for the dessert, a circle of people begins to form around him. Soon he’s talking to seven passersby as well as the eight-person Ritz class. Some of them nod as they listen, perhaps testifying to the interest in the local organic food movement here in Sarasota.

            Howe is a persuasive evangelist for that movement. “Sarasota is considered a beach town, not a farm town,” he says. “A lot of people come to hotels and want the same food they get at home. We want people to get out of the mindset; we want to get them to understand that there are great things in Sarasota.”



The class makes one more stop at the market, to pick up a jar of locally grown Palmetto honey for dessert, then heads back to the hotel and into Vernona’s semi-private dining room, where a food station has been set up and the chefs quickly get to work. As Chartier begins putting together the beet salad and one of the Ritz’s attentive servers pours champagne, Howe takes a break from his prep and pulls out two plates of carrots. The class exchanges baffled looks.

            Howe explains that one plate of carrots is commercially grown, and the other is organically—and sustainably—grown. He asks that everyone take a bite of the first carrot, then the second, and watches, smiling, as the class registers the difference: The second carrot has a much more distinct, fresh taste than the first. Its color is brighter, too.

            “There is a difference,” the chef explains. “The nutrients and sustainability vary from product to product. And just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good.”



His point proven, Howe returns to working on the meal. Within minutes, the first course—the beet salad—is served, and the class goes silent. Occasionally a little moan of delight escapes someone’s mouth, but the prevailing sound is fork tines against china. Soon, everyone’s plate is empty.

            After the fish course, which features the watermelon radish from the market, briefly pickled with chardonnay vinegar, chives and a shot of truffle oil and served atop tender wahoo with sautéed baby bok choy and organic cremini mushrooms—Chartier and Howe get to work on the dessert. The honey—which, because it’s local, is also said to help relieve pollen allergies—is infused with vanilla bean, then drizzled over the top of the French toast, which is soft and spongy and just what it should be. Even though everyone has declared they’re full after the salad and fish course, almost all finish their desserts. The brioche is too good, and the market strawberries and mint too fresh, not to.

            As the class leans back in their chairs, smiling as their plates are whisked away, Howe adds one last note. “With all things, ‘delicious’ tops the words ‘local’ or ‘organic’ any day,” he says. “If food doesn’t taste good, it’s not worth time or energy—regardless of how healthy it might be.”

            By the end of the class, everyone agrees they recognize that eating local and buying organic can be delicious, especially under Howe’s inspired guidance. Seeing food go from market to table in just a few hours has contributed to that understanding. And the success of this class has inspired Howe and Willis to make the market lunches a regular Ritz-Carlton event, held the last Saturday of each month—for more information and to reserve a spot in upcoming classes, call (941) 309-2000.



Howe’s Healthy Menu


Beet salad with fennel, lemongrass, watercress, cilantro, tangerines and tangerine vinaigrette, topped with a medallion of California goat cheese mixed with Meyer lemons and chives.


Fresh wahoo with baby bok choy, sautéed cremini mushrooms and watermelon radish “ceviche.”


French toast, or pain perdu, with fresh strawberries, mascarpone cheese, spearmint and vanilla-spiked local honey





Where to Buy Local


Sarasota offers many places to buy locally grown organic produce. Here are a few.


Downtown Sarasota Farmer’s Market, Lemon Avenue, Saturday mornings, 7 a.m.-1 p.m. A local mainstay for 30 years, the downtown Sarasota farmer’s market is popular with young and old alike. It’s held every Saturday, rain or shine, 52 weeks per year, and offers plant vendors, specialty foods, prepared foods and craft products in addition to an abundant selection of produce.


Siesta Key Farmer’s Market, Siesta Village Plaza, 5124 Ocean Drive, Siesta Key, Sunday mornings, 7 a.m.-1 p.m. This new, all-organic market offers raw foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, home-baked pastries and breads, fresh-cut flowers, specialty cheeses, coffees, soaps, jellies and seafood together with music, entertainment and more.


Green Door Organics offers a weekly organic vegetable pick-up service 52 weeks per year, at three locations: the Rosemary District’s Rosemary Court, South Sarasota and Venice. For more information, visit


Jessica’s Organic Farm, located in DeSoto Lakes, grows organic fruits and vegetables and imports organic vegetables as well. Visit Jessica’s Stand at 4180 47th St. in Sarasota, open on Fridays and Saturdays, to purchase seasonal produce. Call (941) 351-4121 or visit


Whole Foods Market, at 1451 First St. in downtown Sarasota, offers a huge selection of organic produce and strives to buy from local and regional farms, working closely with them to support sustainable agriculture. Call (941) 955-8500 or visit



Farm Fresh

Punta Gorda’s Worden Farm is dedicated to sustainable agriculture.


Run by Chris and Eva Worden, Worden Farm is a 55-acre certified organic farm located in Punta Gorda. The Wordens produce more than 50 kinds of organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers during the Florida growing season, and are passionate about promoting environmentally friendly, sustainable farming techniques.

            Farm memberships are available for those who want a weekly supply of the Wordens’ fresh produce, and members can pick up their produce at the farm itself or at numerous other locations throughout Southwest Florida, including in Sarasota, Venice, Nokomis and Port Charlotte.

            Being involved in the local community is important to the Wordens, who open their farm to the public for many events—field trips, farm tours and workshops among others—and offer apprenticeships for those interested in learning more about the ins and outs of organic farming. Through a partnership with the University of Florida, apprentices receive hands-on training in organic crop production and marketing and work five-and-a-half days a week on the farm, doing everything from planting to direct-marketing at farmers’ markets.

            Of course, the Wordens are most concerned with sustainable farming practices, and are dedicated to producing the highest-quality organic food possible. To learn more about Worden Farm, become a member, or contact Chris and Eva Worden, visit or call (941) 637-4874.





Going Global

Sarasota’s Global Organics reaches around the world.


            Mitch Blumenthal was already well-versed in organic farming when he started Global Organics, his Sarasota-based organic produce wholesale company. He’d grown organic produce on his own Blumenberry Farms—a 10-acre stretch of land that began life as a Sarasota blueberry farm—for years. But in 2002, when he realized that he wanted more organic produce than he could grow himself, he decided to form Global Organics.

            “There are two sides to me,” Blumenthal says, referring to his farming background and his business. “And we’re very customer-service based—we really believe in the small farms, as long as they have an organic certificate.”

            With more than half a million feet of refrigerated storage space and seven temperature-controlled storage rooms, Global Organics and its 80 staff members support more than 160 sustainable local farms in the U.S. and more than 20 internationally. The company sells to retailers, restaurants, cooperatives and buying clubs, and delivers its produce all over the Southeastern United States—everywhere from Sarasota to North Carolina to Louisiana.

            Global Organics also offers a custom repack service called Noah’s Organic  Garden for stores that want to sell organic, prepackaged produce, allowing the company to further spread the word about the importance of healthy eating. Additionally, Global Organics acts as a grower’s agent for local, certified organic farms, helping farmers sell their products for the best prices when the fruits and vegetables are freshest. For more information, visit or call (941) 358-6555.







The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) has strict criteria for organic certification. Farmers who package or market products as more than 70 percent organic or list items as “made with organic ingredients” are required to provide the USDA and the NOP with a list of substances (pesticides, etc.) used on their crops for the past three years, the organic products being grown and a description of the farm’s production practices. An inspector for the USDA then goes out to the farm, and after the inspection a certifying agent reviews the application and the inspector’s report. Annual inspections by the USDA continue for as long as the certificate is active.

            The organic farming community takes pride in its certifications—and its buyers take comfort in the fact that the food is so closely monitored. “Since organic farmers are held to stricter growing standards, their product tends to be grown with a little more respect to the ecosystem, and therefore the consumer,” says Howe.


            Organic food falls into three categories:


--100 percent organic: Foods labeled as 100 percent organic must contain only organic ingredients, with the exception of water and salt.

--Organic: Foods labeled organic must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, with the exception of water and salt.

--Made with organic ingredients: Processed food products with this label must use at least 70 percent organic ingredients and list up to three of those organic products or food groups on the label panel.

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