What if you only bought your food locally, farm-fresh, and constrained your cooking to whatever crops were in season? Would you become bored by the climatic limitations on the menu? Or could you find something new, something exciting to make for dinner every week?
Kris Vrolyk, executive chef at Proper Restaurant, asked exactly this question. Out of his query came the idea to prepare a menu using only ingredients from local farmers’ markets.
“My goal is really to showcase the farmers, and let people know that this is your option,” Vrolyk said. “If you choose to shop this way, you’re going to be more impactful on the region, and you’re really going to have a better sense of community.
“People need to know the difference between what they can find in the supermarket and what’s coming from the ground beneath their feet,” he said.
On the first Monday of every month, Proper hosts Market Mondays alongside its regular menu. On a reservation-only basis, Vrolyk serves a diverse assembly of guests gathered around a common table a three-course meal prepared fresh from whatever he could scrounge up at the farmers’ market the day before.
“Sunday morning I’m at the market 8 to 11 o’clock trying to figure out what I’m going to do,” Vrolyk said.
The menu is always a surprise, he said. “I don’t want returning guests to have the same experience every time. I want them to come here and ask, ‘What is going to happen? What’s going to come out of the kitchen?’”
Vrolyk admitted the endeavor can be intimidating. “It’s really difficult to come up with a new, interesting menu based on ingredients that you found at the market. Sunday you buy stuff and Monday night, it’s showtime.”
Along with long-time friend Justin Lightsey, Vrolyk preps his creations day-of for Monday night guests. “A lot of it is off-the-cuff cooking,” he admitted. “It makes for a great challenge.”
The Kentucky-born chef has worked in downtown restaurants from his home state to Florida, Wyoming, California, and finally Baja Arizona.
From state to state, he has noted how farmers’ markets have taken off in recent years, with more new markets springing up all over the country. “This isn’t hype, this is not a trend,” Vrolyk said. “This is something that children are involved in now.”
Initially slow to take off, ever more of the Tucson community is now attending Market Mondays. November’s event saw Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly seated at Proper’s table for the local-themed, seasonal feast.
“I’m cooking for that adventurous person who wants to be updated with what’s happening in the region, what’s growing, and where they can get it,” Vrolyk added, noting that he is happy to discuss recipes and ingredients with guests who are curious about the content and preparation of their meal.
“I don’t think that cooking should be a mystery or a secret,” he said. “It’s too cool to keep to yourself.” ✜
Proper Restaurant. 300 E. Congress St. 520.396.3357. ProperTucson.com.
Shelley Littin is a science journalist and anthropologist. She spends her free time running unreasonable distances in beautiful places.