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At the market with… the Max chefs

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When Max owner and chef Tony Gullace met me and his other chefs, Dan Eaton and Mark Cupolo, he'd already been at the Public Market an hour. Tony agreed to 7 a.m., but a creature of habit, he'd been up and about well before 6. He's loved the market for years, but it's all business for a restaurant guy. He parks as close to his main vendor as possible, picks up orders, and goes. As Rooney's chef Steve Desantis put it, "I'm on a mission from God."

Last Saturday, Tony slowed down for a few minutes at Java Joe's, where we tried Joe's new Galapagos coffee. Nobody believes the coffee is actually from the islands Darwin made famous, but Joe doesn't care. Dan, Mark, Joe, and I were just getting comfortable when Tony told us to get moving; Max was hosting a wedding, and there wasn't much time for talk.

Looking for the chefs at the Market? Try behind the stalls. Most restaurants call in orders, and the farmers have them ready to pick up. Tony is parked in a space behind Louis Chelini's stall when Desantis and Richardson's chef Tom Polizzi pull up and stop right in the road. It's all about efficiency.

Gullace has been buying produce from Chelini for years, and Dan Eaton says, "Louie taught my son a man's handshake." Chelini's farm, now run by son Craig, is in Williamson. Today, Max needs corn --- perhaps for Cupolo's corn chowder --- apples, arugula, and tomatoes. Chelini says it's been a bad year, and that Market customers are discouraged. But the tomatoes are finally looking good, and August/September is still glorious at the Public Market.

Next, we're off to the Kirby Farm stall. George and Terry Kirby started in 1970, first with a dairy and pig farm, but slowly moved into fruit. They quickly started selling their own produce --- rather than selling it wholesale for a pittance --- from their Brockport farm market (9739 Ridge Road West), as well as at the Public Market. Kirby peaches figure prominently in Max's tri-color salad with roasted peaches, cashews, and camembert.

Mark Cupolo and I lingered, trying the small but spectacularly sweet green gauge plums. Mark pointed out that you never see plums on restaurant menus, and I could see the wheels turning. Timothy Kirby, who now owns and runs his parents' farm, says the weather has effected quantities, but that Kirby's isn't charging any more this year. Oddly in this wet year, they've needed to irrigate. "It doesn't take much," Timothy says, "to go from too wet to too dry."

Tony Gullace's last stop was Fairport's Vercruysse Farms, where the semi-retired Ray Vercruysse holds forth. Ray's son, Richard, runs the farm, and Gullace buys lettuce, carrots, radishes (a Vercruysse specialty), beets, and parsnips here. Interestingly, all three of the aforementioned are family farms that have been passed down a generation fairly recently.

This farm has been in the Vercruysse family for more than 75 years, and Ray has been coming to the market for 65. "When we started," he told us, "it was a wholesale market till 8. We'd be back on the farm by 7." He says there aren't that many farmers at the Market any more, and I suspect this type of family farm might be a dying breed. He explained that his son made deliveries late the night before, then loaded the market truck. Then, Ray got up at 3 a.m. to come here. "If it were easy," he says, "Everybody'd be doing it. Believe it or not, I enjoy it."

Tony was off at that point, but Dan, Mark, and I hung around. We stopped at Michelle DeMeyer's stall for what Dan Eaton says are the best root vegetables. DeMeyer is a Kodak art director who still runs a portion of her father's farm. A picture of Gerard DeMeyer, who died in February of 2003, hangs on a column at the stall. Eaton considered him a good friend.

Michelle DeMeyer farms six or seven of her 20 acres in Greece. The town wants the land to put cell towers on or something. In this case, no new generation will carry on after her. The town will eventually get its wish.

I wandered off to shop, and ran into Dan and Mark half an hour later, talking to Barry Kucker at Fare Game Food Co. We got talking about "The Ghost," Tony Gullace, about all his nervous energy. Mark says he's traveled with the guy, and he's up late, up early, always moving. Maybe he was a farmer in another life.

Efficiency aside, the connection between these chefs and their Public Market vendors is real and very cool. Years of relationships result in these guys getting the very best produce, and nobody handles it like Gullace, Cupolo, and Eaton.

Food tip

Bee-Licious Café and Catering has opened in the gorgeous atrium of the Powers Building, 16 West Main Street. Linda Czajkowski offers breakfast and lunch weekdays from 7 to 3:30. Check out specials like Curried apple soup, gingered pear salad, and hot turkey with mashed potatoes. 454-5920.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for Toronto restaurants and wine from 10 to noon. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.

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