Ashley Locklear works for some of New Orleans’ most celebrated restaurants, but her work often carries her away from kitchens and dining rooms. She travels a circuit of farms in southern Louisiana and Mississippi, bumping through fields behind tractors, jotting notes on soil conditions and crouching alongside farmers to peer at ripening greens.
A full-time forager for the Link Restaurant Group, Locklear forges relationships between local farmers and renowned New Orleans chefs, building connections that produce award-winning food.
The Florida native began interacting with local farmers and chefs in 2008, when she moved to New Orleans and helped start the Hollygrove Market and Farm. As chefs began visiting the now-defunct market, Locklear noted a “huge need” among restaurants for wholesale, locally grown ingredients.
Chef Donald Link and his partners hired Locklear in 2010 to work closely with area farmers on filling wish lists of fresh ingredients. The relationships require trust, as producers commit to raising particular hog breeds or undertaking seed trials to grow radicchio, arugula and other colder-climate greens that can withstand Gulf Coast heat and pests.
Rebecca Wilcomb, chef/partner of the new Gianna Restaurant, said Locklear is adept at working with farmers to procure ingredients that cater to chefs’ individual desires, such as the bolder, funkier arugula preferred by Wilcomb.
Locklear played a vital role in establishing a partnership with Mississippi-based Rocking R Dairy, which provides the hogs for Cochon’s famed charcuterie program. The specially bred hogs have allowed chefs to experiment and expand the charcuterie operation, which has in turn fostered new generations of New Orleans butchers, Locklear said.
As Locklear walks the fields and bends over rows of greens, side-by-side with farmers, her work strengthens conversation between the producers and preparers of food and serves as a visible reminder that even the most elevated cuisine begins in the ground.
“I like seeing the dialogue, how it gets interpreted on the plate or on the menu,” she said.
What are some common misconceptions about your work? They think I’m out in the middle of the woods crawling around and coming out with mushrooms … I have done that. It’s not worth the time to dig around like that.