I can be old school. I like phone conversations, handwritten notes, and a drink (coffee or cocktail) with someone, rather than Skype, text or email. The latter are efficient, but I sometimes wonder if we lose personal connection with the kind of connection that technology empowers?

The connection and collision of digital and personal relationships are prevalent with food.

The connection and collision of digital and personal relationships are prevalent with food. We used to learn at the kitchen counters of our mothers and grandmothers, and now find inspiration from bloggers and websites. Are we losing a connection to our food? Once I had a client who cited his own personal study that 95% of consumers knew where their produce comes from…their local supermarket.

Last week, I had the privilege of spending a week in Rome with Flavor Forays and May-Mei Academy among a group of 10 amazing US chefs. We came eager to immerse ourselves in the tradition, passion, and artisan craft of food. It reaffirmed my belief in the power of relationships. Technology empowers us to connect and maintain relationships, but it is incredibly difficult to spark meaningful ones without a real-life connection.

Foods can be relegated to numbers on order forms, however, a true artisan product cannot be labeled as 10226—it needs to describe the story behind it, the farmer, producer, and people in between. We sought out these stories together, and enjoyed cooking what we learned back in the kitchen. Sharing these memories brought the group together in a way that cannot be matched at a trade show or conference. It also enlightened me of their world, and the balance between idealism and realism.

How often do you see your farmer? Not the processor, exporter, importer or broker, but the producer. Gus Schumacher, a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, passed away earlier this week. This former Ag Commissioner from Massachusetts would arrive at restaurants with his own local tomatoes and chastise the chefs for getting theirs from across the country.  In Rome, we visited Mercato Trionfale, an ancient market for modern times. You will still find multi-generation farmers who are selling what they have grown and looking their customer in the eye. Even with the growth of farmer’s markets and cooperatives in the US, we still rarely get that connection with the people that produce our food. Passionate chefs have led this revival to reconnect with farms and people, and let guests know more about how the food arrived on their plates.

How hands-on are you? We visited a Pastificio on the outskirts of Rome. The artisan pasta maker uses older equipment that requires the human hand in production. He does this intentionally, along with getting his supplies directly from the farms and mills that supply him. He even has his own garden for the herbs he uses in his stuffed pastas. In a world of mechanization, the human touch goes away. Even at home, prepared meals have widened the gap between meals consumed at home, and those made at home. E-commerce has also distanced ourselves from the selection process, and lessened the chance for impulse buys of seasonal, local produce.

Do you promote passion? It can’t be taught, but it can be displayed and celebrated. For most of us, we do that with our dollar. When we spend the extra money to purchase the foods from families and artisans, and share that with others, we are providing the much needed WOM attention. Their focus is on their farms and production, so it is up to us to support the marketing. We visited a farm near the border with Tuscany owned by an architect who started it out of sheer passion. He raises Chianina cattle, a breed that has been raised in the region for over 2000 years.

Paying it forward: I returned home inspired and exhausted. After a week of too much food and limoncello, the first meal I made was risotto, with my daughter. She stood on her stool at my side stirring the rice as I told her about what I learned. This relationship is the most meaningful to me. The moments shared in the kitchen, around the table, and even shopping for your food. Throughout history, relationships have been a driving force. Recipes shared through generations. Production techniques discussed along trade routes. Foods of different areas traded at markets.

It is a Utopian dream to be able to know the people who produce everything we eat, but we should all take the time to learn a little more about them and their passion. So, when you go apple picking over the coming weeks, take the time to seek out the farmer or orchard worker and talk to them. You may learn something.