Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures on the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In "Heart of the House," Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
Restaurant workers are the gears that make the hospitality engine run, but without the food suppliers there'd be no fuel. This week we went to the Union Square Greenmarket, where thousands of New Yorkers, including dozens of chefs from nearby restaurants, stop by to pick up the freshest products from regional farmers and suppliers. David Hughes, the Operations Manager of the market, chatted us up about why he loves his job, the inner workings of market, and how he keeps such a big operation running smoothly in the middle of Union Square.
How did you get involved in the Greenmarket? I've been here for over ten years now. I came out here from Ireland in 1995. My plan B while I was trying to get an industrial design job (which is what I trained to be) was to maybe get a job at the farmer's market to pay the bills. I started working for Oak Grove Plantation, who's still here today selling vegetables, grains, and pork. It was an amazing experience. I felt like I belonged here and it was a great community of people. I started working for him 3 days a week, then 4, and I just thought it was great, I loved doing the work, and I love food—so I asked myself how I could do this full time. Something happened to open up at Greenmarket and I started as a market manager; now I'm still here doing it.
What was it about that first experience that you fell in love with? I just loved the interactions. All the chefs would come by and you'd talk to them about the products. It's a great people-oriented space. New York City can be a hostile place, and this felt like a little village in the middle of it. It's very friendly.
What's your current role at the Greenmarket? I wear many hats in this job. We deal with our customers, of course. We have thousands everyday. We also do promotions and cooking demonstrations, and we try to educate our customers on what's fresh, what's in season, the difference between this food and supermarket food.
In the morning the first thing I do here is to get the producers into their assigned spaces. As you can see it's very, very tight quarters here. There's over 70 producers here today and each one is designated a location and an amount of space. That becomes a full-time job in the morning: coming in here before they do, marking it out with chalk and a measure wheel, so that when they show up they have their assigned section.
What time do things get going in the morning? The first person arrives at 3 AM. We pack this market so tight now that every truck is oriented a certain way, so they have to be on a certain line. If we don't meet those marks and one person is out of position, the whole line falls out of balance. So we do a whole chalk out in the morning before the producers arrive at 4 AM (though most come between 5 and 7 in the morning). I'll come in around 5 and stay until 7 at night. It's epic, but I can't complain because farmers will tell me that's nothing!
What does the rest of the workday look like? We unpack our market manager van, which is our office on wheels, and we put up our market information tents. We put up signage, then go through the market to see who's here. We'll put updates on Twitter and Facebook, create the signage for the day, and put out maps and recipes. Then we'll get ready for our events for the day, which often involve chefs coming in and doing a demo or a book signing. We're always planning ahead to see who's coming in, who's leaving, always thinking about the next market. As the events wind down, we have to start breaking stuff down and getting the farmers out of the market safely, and make sure the space is clean after they leave.
The market is in the middle of not just any city, but New York. What is that like? It's a live event. Everything happens here. You name it, it's happened in Union Square. People fall down, people will get bitten by dogs, people will have arguments, a child will get lost. It's a dynamic space, so you're reacting to all this during the course of the day as well. A protest might just erupt, people might march through with their banners. You have to be ready for anything.
Who are some of your favorite producers? Monkshood Nursery has been here through the winter with us, supplying us with amazingly fresh greens that have been grown in tunnels, for really good prices. It's been great to have that product here in the winter, when everyone thinks it's only parsnips and apples.
Another great one is Two Guys From Woodbridge They sell certified organic and very interesting microgreens, things no one else has. Orac is something that comes to mind right now—it's a microgreen that's purple. Chefs love his stuff, they line up to buy it. Per Se, wd~50, ABC Kitchen: they've got a long list of restaurants that come specifically for his items. I can see chefs looking at his microgreens and just seeing them on the plate as the perfect garnish.
What does this work mean to you? My plan B has become my plan A, and that's not an unusual story. But I love doing this. It's never dull here. I don't watch the clock. I come in, I react to different instances and scenarios all day, talk to farmers and listen to their concerns and issues, and their suggestions to make it better. The 14 hours go by really quickly. It's only the next day when I realize, wow, I'm really tired.
It's very gratifying work. This is a great market. It's been here 36 years and I feel it's a public service to New Yorkers. We're giving them amazingly fresh food at fair prices. It's so gratifying to have people come here and shop and say "I look forward each year to getting these strawberries, or these watermelon radishes, it means so much to me." It's incredibly rewarding.
I feel very lucky doing this—I get to know over 150 individual producers and they do tremendously hard work. It's a vocation to be a farmer because you have to work so hard to produce that food. I'm just grateful I can help them bring that here and hopefully sell as much as they can.