The Sox' other farm team

Fenway's Aramark hits on a winning idea by sending its chefs and culinary students to see where food is grown

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / September 8, 2010

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On a sweltering July day, a group of chefs and young culinary students in T-shirts and shorts trails after Jim Ward, co-owner with brother Bob of Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon. He leads them through his fields, showing off burgeoning rows of beets, greens, tomatoes, potatoes, and more. They pause to eat spicy radishes yanked straight from the ground. They shake their heads at how much work it takes to grow corn. “One ear per stalk,’’ a tall, skinny kid marvels. “Isn’t it crazy?’’

A month later, clad in crisp white jackets, the same group is hard at work in the open kitchen of Fenway Park’s EMC Club, operated by Aramark. Senior executive chef Ron Abell slices tomatoes of the ripest red. Behind him, Christine Sampson peels melon to be wrapped in prosciutto, while John Mulcahy cuts kernels from ears of corn, setting aside the cobs to make stock. The produce they saw growing at the farm is on its way to the table, in the form of heirloom tomato and mozzarella salad, antipasti, and lobster and corn chowder.

In restaurants around Boston, chefs are increasingly turning toward local, seasonal ingredients. This, they say, supports area farmers and producers, reduces the amount of fuel used to transport ingredients, and results in fresher, better-tasting food.

But a ballpark known for hot dogs might not be the place one would expect to find baby carrots and wax beans grown on a family farm. For the past several years, the chefs at Fenway have been steadily incorporating regional products into the menus for the EMC and Pavilion clubs, some of the most expensive seats in the park. Currently, nearly all of the ingredients used in the ballpark’s premium areas are local — particularly at the peak of New England’s growing season. “Right now, everything is,’’ Abell says. “Everything but onions.’’

Vegetables come from Ward’s. Much of the seafood is caught in New England waters or raised in the region. The cheddar on the cheeseburgers is from Vermont, and the pickles alongside are made by local company Grillo’s Pickles. Because what’s in season is constantly changing, the menu is too. (Concession stands feature some local products, like hot dogs from Chelsea’s Kayem and fruit from Ward’s, but for the most part they still rely on larger distributors like Sysco.)

Abell and executive chef Steve Postal have backgrounds in fine dining. Abell worked at the now-defunct South End restaurant Icarus, Postal at Cambridge’s Oleana. At Fenway, the chefs buy from many of the same purveyors they used at small, upscale restaurants.

“We just added a few more zeros to the orders,’’ Abell says. Where once he might have requested 30 pounds of tomatoes, now he could need 300 or more.

With 150 active acres each year, Ward’s Berry Farm also works with outfits such as high-end supplier Specialty Foods Boston and Red Tomato, a nonprofit that connects local farmers with large retailers like Trader Joe’s. The connection with Aramark has made an impact that goes beyond sales, says Jim Ward. “They’re a good wholesale customer and they’ve increased our business by a bit,’’ he says. More than that, “it’s inspirational for our crew here. They like the thought that we’re feeding the fans.’’

At the EMC and Pavilion clubs, guests have been surprised to learn this ballpark fare is locally grown, the chefs say. The reaction has been positive.

“To me, it is a big deal,’’ says Mark McGrath, a lawyer who is a member of the Pavilion Club and often eats at the EMC Club. “It tastes better knowing I’m having locally grown products and organic products. I’m not a health nut, but I try to watch what I eat. I much prefer trying to sponsor that and support that than I do the corporation per se.’’

Fenway Park isn’t the only sports stadium sourcing ingredients from nearby farmers. Kauffman Stadium, in Kansas City, Mo., also an Aramark park, is another example.

“You can’t go to a ballpark and not see your hot dog, your peanuts. That’s a staple,’’ says executive chef Dustin Miller, by phone from Kansas City. “But we’re providing customers with more options. We’re focused on supporting the local community and small family farms. We have a huge emphasis on local products. It’s great to see that other venues are doing the same thing.’’

Abell says visitors from New York’s Citi Field and others have expressed interest in Fenway Park’s model.

Using local produce is a teaching tool for the 30 or so culinary students who apprentice at Fenway Park each semester, Postal says. “We get a whole new breed of cooks coming in who really understand where their food comes from. It helps them respect it and treat it better. Everyone benefits from that, all the way to the guest.’’

On the July outing to Ward’s, exploring the fields before a cutthroat Wiffle ball game and a pig roast, it’s clear that the respite from fast-paced kitchen life is having an effect.

“Sometimes you get caught up and forget about the food,’’ says catering chef Jessica Paulson, picking her way carefully between the rows. “This is a good reminder.’’

Devra First can be reached at

Fenway chefs go local

Fenway chefs go local

See shots of the Aramark chefs and culinary students out in the field.