By Emily Cook
Chef and television personality Nathan Lyon—known for his television show “A Lyon in the Kitchen,” his cookbook “Great Food Starts Fresh” and his position among the final four on the second season of “The Next Food Network Star“—is a Northern Virginia native, too. After growing up in Clarendon and studying at James Madison University, he left the area 18 years ago for Los Angeles but is returning this Saturday for a demonstration and cookbook signing at Falls Church Farmers Market.
Here’s Lyon on the importance of farmers markets, planning ahead and eating in season.
How do you think the food scene has changed in NoVA?
I would say nationwide the culinary scene has finally come into its own where food is so much more important than it ever was before. I think that food TV has a lot to do with that, but I also think farmers markets popping up everywhere across the nation are equally responsible. People want to know where their food comes from. So when you go to a restaurant, be it in Arlington or D.C. or elsewhere in the nation, you’ll see—on the menu it will say “Weiser Farms,” and it gets passed to the people who actually grew the food. There’s no way you would see that 18, 20 years ago. It just didn’t exist.
Do you think buying fresh from a farmers market every day is really feasible for the everyday person?
It’s not Europe. We don’t have tiny little towns where you can walk and stroll at a leisurely pace. What I recommend people do is go to their farmers market when they do have time on the weekends, which is usually when the largest farmers markets are happening, and then what I like to do is figure out my meals for the week. You don’t buy a ridiculous amount of food and then bring it back home, shove it in the fridge and forget about it. You actually have a use for it.
There’s also no question about what’s for dinner. After a while, you get to the store and you’re rushing with the millions of people to get in line at whatever grocery store, and you usually just grab some random food. What I do is think of shopping as—I mean have fun doing it, definitely at the farmers market—but think of it as a job. You wouldn’t wait until the last second to prepare for a really important meeting on Saturday night or Sunday night. You would prepare for it.
What I like to do is, [since] it’s grilling season right now, put a savory marinade on boneless, skinless chicken breast and maybe grill some corn and some fresh heirloom tomatoes and green beans and make a really delicious salad with burrata cheese and put the chicken in—and how does that sound? That sounds really good. OK great, that’s Monday. Just do that for the week and it takes all the stress and anxiety out of it, and you kind of look forward to making homemade pizza, or you look forward to making homemade pasta, and you realize you’re not wasting food.
Help me with my lunches for the week. What should I buy at the farmers market?
Are you tired of kale yet? Kale is one of the main staples we have in our household [because] you can do a fresh kale salad with apples and cranberries and fresh oranges and some almonds—things that have fiber and fill you up. Add some olive oil. And with that same head of kale, add some onions and garlic and whatever fresh sausage you can find at your farmers market, and I’d also add some golden raisins and honey nuts and chili flakes and maybe some fennel seeds. You put that over pasta and that’s ridiculous.
People go to the store and have one recipe that they’ve torn out of a cookbook. They bring it with them to the grocery store or the farmers market; they get just those ingredients; they go home; they make that one recipe; and then they’re like, “Now what?”
People like me, chefs like me, we all go to farmers markets. When you go to a farmers market, chances are the person to your left or to your right knows a lot about food. You can pick our brains all day because that’s where we get a lot of ideas from. When we go to farmers markets, we don’t go there just to get food. We go to get inspired as far as what to serve on our menus … not just the regular old mac and cheese because people don’t want mac and cheese anymore because it’s getting warm out. So what do you do? Well asparagus is in season right now. You can do some asparagus, some shallots, a little bit of fresh lemon, some shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano on top and some fresh parsley. And you’re like, “Wow, that’s a fantastic salad that takes roughly seven minutes to make.”
What I’ve learned from my bachelor of science in health science [from James Madison University] and from farmers markets is that nature puts out the food that you should be eating during that particular time of year. If it’s summertime and the heat index in D.C. is 112, which is just so hot you don’t want to turn on your oven, Mother Nature grows watermelon and tomatoes. And with those, you can make a great gazpacho and don’t have to go near the oven.
More chef demonstrations this summer
July 7, 3-7 p.m. at Crystal City Farmers Market: Chef Domenick Torlucci, Jaleo Restaurant
July 18, 9-11 a.m. at Falls Church Farmers Market: Chef Tim Ma, Water & Wall Restaurant
August 8, 9-11 a.m. at Falls Church Farmers Market: Chef Tracy O’Grady, Willow Restaurant
August 8, 10 a.m. at Old Town Farmers Market: Chef at Market with Carluccio’s Restaurant