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Home Grown: A celebration of local culinary enterprise

Geoff Latham (Nicky USA), Jim Brooke (Corfini Gourmet), Justin Marx (Marx Foods): Specialty Purveyors

He's not a chef, but he's at home in dozens of restaurant kitchens and he was a guest of honor at the Movable Feast TV show the other night. Geoff Latham fills a key role in the region's food chain by supplying what the big purveyors like Cisco and Food Services of America can't (or won't): specialty items like veal sweetbreads, water buffalo, and alligator.

At heart, Latham is a butcher, and the company he founded 20 years ago, Nicky USA, is a specialty meat distributor. Now, having purchased a 30-acre, certified organic farm outside Aurora, near Portland, Latham plans to raise his own products (rabbits, game birds, and other unique animals) for top chefs across the Northwest.

Melody and Geoff Latham

Before he got into the butcher's trade, before he started the food distribution business, Latham was a farmer himself. The newly-acquired property, dubbed Nicky Farm, is located on the meandering Pudding River half an hour south of Portland. The landscape is home to flocks of geese and quail, among other wildlife, and features both a century-old farmhouse and a barn similar to one that already appears on the Nicky Farms logo.

The first animals Latham will raise on the farm will be rabbits ("our keystone protein," Latham says), which the company began selling in 1991. But success didn't come overnight. The Nicky Farms brand didn't start until 2009; Latham expanded to Seattle a couple of years ago.

"I am lucky to have established my business in a place with some of the nation's best chefs and locavores who are excited about locally-grown high-quality protein. Because of them I am now able to fulfill my life-long dream of growing my own meat on my own farm," says Latham.

In addition to acting as a working farm, Nicky USA will host chefs and interested eaters for farm dinners, hunting trips, boating on the river and tours of the property, with the goal of deepening the connection between the farm and tables across the Northwest.

Jim Brooke's path to his own food-service venture started with a business degree from Gonzaga and a stint in Silicon Valley, but his heart was always in the kitchen. The connections between land and dinner table just required some tweaking, that's all. He moved from San Francisco to Seattle to launch Corfini Gourmet a decade ago, starting with nothing more than his mother's maiden name painted on the side of a refrigerated trailer and a beat-up Subaru for deliveries. But he had the right kind of clients, celebrity chefs with high standards like William Belickis and Scott Carsberg, and his business grew quickly. Today Corfini has two dozen vans on the road delivering to clients, and a staff of 70. The company occupies a converted space in SoDo (the old Johnson Wax building) that's been outfitted with a gourmet kitchen and a USDA-certified meat cutting and dry-age facility.

Brooke doesn't see Latham as a competitor so much as a colleague. His own line runs to beef, lamb, pork, poultry and game; he leaves the more exotic stuff, like water buffalo, to Nicky USA. That said, Corfini does seem to have a lock on one Italian specialty, cinghiale, wild boar, which it sources in the scrub lands of West Texas. He also supplies hard-to-find oils, vinegars, cheeses, and truffles.

On a very different level is Justin Marx of Marx Foods, a longtime (five generations) specialty supplier to the very top restaurants on the East Coast and, more recently, an online business as well. For the past couple of years, Marx has also operated a retail outlet at his company's test kitchen in lower Queen Anne with items like delicate pasta bearing the Filotea brand, from Ancona in Italy's Le Marche region. Many products come from the Pacific Northwest, to be sure, but most from wherever in the world the best examples might be grown or packaged.

Justin Marx's job, as he tells it, has been to travel and taste, taste and travel. Farmers markets, fancy food shows, more farmers markets. (Tough life, right? Food & Wine this summer named him a "food scout extraordinaire.") Samples pour into the office at the foot of Denny where the staff (and invited guests) blind-taste and vote. Online, Marx Foods offers well over 1,000 items; in the shop, only 300 to 400. (The overage supermarket, which must appeal to a wide range of customer needs and tastes, has 20,000 to 30,000 items.) Online, too, the producers take care of shipping (air freight, usually), which means that the point of difference for Marx is customer service: an unusually rich assortment of "how to" information: recipes, background and history, stories.

With a physical store, Marx goes head-to-head, (jar-to-jar? box to box?) with established retail importers like Big John's PFI (in SoDo) and ChefShop (up the road on Elliott Avenue). But Marx has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, starting with a unique array of "specialty" meats not previously available to home cooks (elk, venison, bison, boar, kangaroo, poussin, poulet rouge, squab, quail, pheasant). Yes, it's all cryovac'd and frozen, because, let's remember, Marx isn't repackaging anything. Sure to be popular: the "wooly" manganitsa pork, which virtually vanished from the Seattle market when Heath Putnam's inventory was shipped to New Jersey.

Who's the market? Is anyone really going to buy kangaroo? Maybe not for your average family dinner, but chefs, caterers, and food service companies in the market for something unusual. Or just to drop in and pick up some edible flowers or exotic produce. One potential drawback, a lack of on-site parking, doesn't faze Justin. "We're interested in building relationships with serious customers. There's actually plenty of street parking on Lower Queen Anne."

April 2015

 Ronald Holden is a Seattle-based journalist who specializes in food, wine and travel. He has worked for KING TV, Seattle Weekly, and Chateau Ste. Michelle. His blog is, and he has recently published a new book "Home Grown Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food and Drink."

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