Savvy shoppers know the adage well enough: Never make a grocery run on an empty stomach, lest your hungry eyes fill your basket with spur-of-the-moment temptations.
But many regulars at the Uptown location of the Crescent City Farmers Market show up ready to eat on Tuesdays. They beeline to the Green Plate Special, a booth or in some cases a truck, where rotating chefs-in-residence serve dishes to eat on the spot, usually prepared with ingredients sourced from the market’s own farmers.
“I get it almost every week,” said Nina Camacho, a local restaurant supplier who works a market trip into her rounds of client visits each Tuesday. “It’s always changing, so I always come open-minded.”
On a recent Tuesday, that meant a $4 lunch of South American-style meat pies with chimichurri sauce from Empanada Intifada, a food truck holding down Green Plate Special duties in May.
Most area farmers markets have some sort of ready food options, from breakfast pastries to stuffed grape leaves and tamales. But the Green Plate Special has developed a unique niche in this marketplace.
For the chefs and cooks who set up shop, it represents a playground of fresh ingredients and a chance to test new recipes or even new restaurant concepts.
For farmers, it’s another sales outlet and a chance to build connections with potential restaurant clients.
And for shoppers, it can be a showroom of sorts for how to use the market’s current harvest in their own kitchens.
“Whenever I see the beautiful stuff the farmers brought in, my first thought is that I want to eat it, then it’s how could I cook with it,” said Taylor Jackson, who runs Empanada Intifada. “There’s no better place for inspiration with food than a farmers market.”
Bill Ryals, a longtime market vendor who sells meat, eggs and dairy products from his Rocking R Diary in Tylertown, Miss., says the Green Tent Special is good for his own business.
“People will try something there, see it’s made with our asiago, say, and then come back here and buy more cheese from us,” he said. “It’s like they’re test-driving before they buy it.”
He’s also been impressed with the different ways the chefs use his products.
“One guy put our black pepper chevre on strawberries,” Ryals said. “That’s definitely not something I would have done at home, but then I tried it and it was dang good.”
Kathryn Parker, the market’s executive director, sees the farmer-to-vendor-to-shopper relationships behind the lunch booth as another way public markets offer more than just a retail experience.
“It gets to the idea of community at the market,” Parker said. “It encourages people to linger and talk with other shoppers who find themselves eating together. They get ideas about how to use what the farmers have, they see what other people have in their baskets and get talking at the picnic tables. It’s a natural way for people to socialize here.”
Anne Churchill, a longtime local chef, has served the market’s Green Plate Special a dozen times since 2006, and most recently in the fall before opening her new vegan restaurant Bhava in the Marigny.
“It’s been such a great incubator, just for developing ideas and getting the word out there about what different chefs are doing,” Churchill said.
She underscored that serving fresh food outdoors to the market shoppers requires a lot of work and preparation, as well as something of a mind shift. For instance, restaurant pros accustomed to late hours and kitchen banter find that in the bright morning sunshine they have to adjust to the more family-friendly chitchat of the market.
“People love to talk to you about what you’re cooking,” Churchill said. “It’s like you’re on stage. You’ll be cooking and find people coming around the booth and looking over your shoulder.”
But no matter what, she advised, any would-be Green Tent Special vendor must be ready to feed the market’s captive audience: the farmers.
“You’d better have your act together when the market opens at 9 a.m.,” Churchill said. “You might be making a lunch dish, but those farmers have been up since 4 a.m. and they’re hungry.”