Duncan's local organic produce inspires Valley chefs

By: Carey Sweet - March 2009
The Arizona Republic

Patrick Duncan waved a knife around, precariously close to Kevin Binkley's head. Binkley, chef-owner of the fine dining Binkley's Restaurant and its more casual sister Café Bink in Cave Creek, was too busy studying fresh plucked English peas to mind.

As the owner of Duncan's Trading Co. in Litchfield Park explained the unanticipated popularity of the legumes he'd planted for the first time this year, it was difficult for him not to get excited. He punctuated the air with the sharp blade of his two-edged lettuce knife and gestured grandly toward the pristine rows of colorful vegetables lined up like soldiers in the fields of his 25-acre farm.

Chefs with Pat Duncan From left to right: Brandon Gauthier, Macready Downer, Kevin Binkley, Patrick Duncan, Sean Currid, Justin Pfeilsticker, Jeff Jones, Deborah Knight, Vincent Guerithault, Beau MacMillan and Tony Hehman. Cosmic Purple carrots. Dutch mache. Easter Egg radishes. Beets and beans and melons. In all, Duncan grows about 200 varieties of certified organic specialty produce on his sprawling tract near Loop 303 and Indian School Road.

This day, he was leading a troupe of the Valley's top chefs on a tour of the bounty, including Binkley, Vincent Guerithault of Vincent on Camelback in Phoenix, Beau MacMillan of Elements at Sanctuary Resort in Paradise Valley, Deborah Knight of Mosaic in Scottsdale and Justin Pfeilsticker of Trader Vic's in Scottsdale.

The chefs were on a field trip to explore the high-end ingredients that Duncan supplies their restaurants. It was an opportunity for them to see the birthplace of the produce that they offer in dishes as elaborate as Binkley's truffle quail with baby carrots or as simple as Guerithault's spinach salad.

The farm visit was also to help inspire the menus for an upcoming series of dinners the chefs are organizing to showcase Duncan's often unique products. The series - loosely called the Chef & Farmer's Table Tour - takes place through June at a variety of Duncan's client restaurants, with Duncan as a host at each supper. Besides a brilliant meal, the goal is to offer diners a greater appreciation of what, with a lot of hard work, can be grown in Arizona's desert soil.

"The beautiful produce that emerges from Duncan's is not the ordinary beets, radishes and fennel that you find in commercial markets," said Chuck Wiley, executive chef of the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, where his Café Zuzu hosted the series' kickoff dinner earlier this month. "He grows heirloom varieties in unexpected colors and unusual shapes and sizes with distinct, profound flavor."

As the chefs tramped through the dirt, the bar kept getting higher on what they would serve at their upcoming multicourse, wine-paired dinners. Knight, whose event is Wednesday, March 25, pulled ahead, planning an eight-course feast ranging from fennel pollen dusted lobster with caramelized Zeta Fina fennel and Lincoln leeks, fava beans, baby amaranth and saffron-leek beurre blanc to a "No Beeting This" dessert of sweet beet scarlet cake, beet mousse and candied beets.

While some of Duncan's Trading Co. vegetables are familiar, many are uncommon, the result of experimentation with the Valley's often unforgiving growing conditions, and Duncan's refusal to use greenhouses or other props favored by other local growers.

"I can't grow the full-sized heirloom tomatoes in the open field," Duncan said. "It gets too hot too early, and they just drop all of the blossoms, which is sad.

"Yet my best creation is my 'calabacitas con flor,' my mixed baby squash with attached blossoms. All of the different shapes and colors of the baby summer squash are amazing with the flowers still attached. Many have tried to duplicate it with mixed results."

He's also had great success with melons, he said. "Mine are super, super sweet, both in the special varieties, and probably more importantly, that we can let them fully ripen on the plant before we harvest. That's a huge advantage over 'firm shipping' melons."

While farm-to-table dining has been one of the most popular trends of the last year, for Duncan's client restaurants, it's been a way of business since their inceptions. Chef Razz Kamnitzer was one of the first to discover Duncan's products when the farmer opened his farm in 1997.

"He'd always come around and discuss crazy seeds," said Kamnitzer, the owner of Razz's in Scottsdale. "Wild, wacky things we'd never heard of 20 years ago, like mizuna or red orach. It was so cool."

Then, as he does now, Kamnitzer waits for Duncan to make his twice-weekly deliveries before preparing the restaurant's menus. "I told him to just bring out what's best. It's so tough to grow here, I don't limit him, but cook around what he brings me."

For Binkley's restaurants, Duncan grows custom-size fennel, and the specific boutique beets the chef prefers. "He calls me three months before the season and asks me what I want him to plant," Binkley said. "I've tried to drive him nuts, to try things like cardoons, which no one does, and he makes them happen."

Cardoons are an artichoke thistle, offered recently on Binkley's daily changing menu as speck-wrapped shad roe with cardoons, baby turnips, salsify and sorrel vinaigrette.

If the rage for exotic organics is relatively new, Duncan could be called a visionary. As the son of a cotton farmer and dairyman in Phoenix and Buckeye, Duncan started hoeing weeds in the fields in second grade.

The original farm was in the Laveen area, and then spread to Tolleson and Goodyear. "At my dad's suggestion, my brother and I leased small farm properties when we were in high school at Brophy," said Duncan, 50. "It gave and taught us responsibilities, and funded college."

After the bottom fell out of the cotton and alfalfa market in the late 1990s, he switched to what was then the risky proposition of boutique produce. Urban encroachment nudged him from property where Raven Golf Course now sits at 32nd Street and Baseline Road, and he headed west to Litchfield Park.

Today, his vegetables sound like rock stars - baby Solar Yellow carrots, Red Beard scallions, Sparkler radishes, Graffiti cauliflower, Bright Lights Rainbow chard, and baby Flashy Trout Back lettuce. Choices range from five types of beets, 14 lettuces, 10 tomatoes, eight beans, four eggplant, five bell peppers, three peas, eight exotic melons, four watermelons, 12 squash, and dozens of other herbs, salad and braising greens.

Despite his farm's rapid growth over the past years, Duncan says he still intimately knows each and every bud poking through the soil. He plants everything personally, and supervises a team of a half dozen pickers through harvest. He hand delivers to each restaurant client, and mans a booth at Vincent's Camelback Market on Saturdays from fall through late spring.

And apparently, he isn't shy about insisting top restaurants respect the work he puts into each baby white carrot. He's been called the "produce Nazi" for dropping clients who let his vegetables wilt or otherwise abuse them. And if he likes a restaurant, he isn't shy about letting them know they need to step up to his good stuff.

"He was the first to call when Elements opened in 2001," said MacMillan, laughing. "He said, 'How come you idiots aren't using me?' Now he brings us these awesome beans and we have to ask him how to use them."

The only challenge Duncan hasn't been able to overcome is the searing heat and sun that fries his fields after June.

"Top notch produce is so important," said Knight, who religiously celebrates Duncan's product in her expansive vegetarian and vegan tasting menus. "It's so sad when summer comes, and it all goes away."

Details: The Chef & Farmer Table Tour with Patrick Duncan of Duncan's Trading Co. Menus, costs and times vary; contact the restaurant for details.