Anyone can pick up a butternut squash at the farmers market; knowing what to do with it once you get home is the tricky part.

So on Aug. 16, the Santa Monica Sunday Farmers Market, in conjunction with Venice Merchant, began doing bi-weekly “Cooking Fresh” demos to teach customers what they can do with the produce they are buying.

“Customers were giving us feedback that they didn’t know what to do with the produce from the market,” said market manager Jodi Low. “And that’s a big problem for us because we want to sell produce and we want California farmers to succeed at our market.”

Low said that once they had the idea for the cooking demos the next step was finding a partner, and Venice Merchant seemed like the ideal fit.

“We’re a curated source for organic and local produce, grass-fed meats, local seafood, pantry items and more,” Venice Merchant owner Giles Donovan said. “We curate a weekly box, which is customized. It gets all your weekly shopping taken care of by our delivery service.”

Low said that setting up the demos went smoothly due to a “perfect synergy” with Venice Merchant.

“It was right around the time we were beginning to test out a variety of new activities around the market and Giles, we’d been talking to him about what we could do together for sometime. And [Venice Merchant] sources from all the California farmers at all of our farmers markets to create their boxes. So when he said he wanted to work together I said ‚ÄòGreat! Let‚Äôs do some demos.‚Äô”

Venice Merchant now partners with a variety of chefs and is on the schedule at the market every other week to do demos through the end of 2015.

“They’ve just got this lovely demo space,” Low said. “They erect this white canopy, and it’s a very open space. There’s about 25 chairs set up and customers can sort of just wander through. They feature a different seasonal recipe every time they come and then the recipe gets posted on their website and customers get to taste samples of the recipe that the chef is demonstrating that week.”

Donovan said that this partnership is perfect for Venice Merchant, as their company really is all about cooking.

“There are a lot of services now that provide ready prepared meals, you know, like they’ll actually portion things out,” Donovan said. “Venice Merchant is providing you with whole ingredients. We cater to people who can, and do, cook, not people who are trying out how to cook. … So these demos allow people to jump on in.

“It’s fun for us because often the recipe is one from our site. … It is fun for us to talk about the recipes that we recommend eating at that time of the year, cooking your way through the year, that’s really what Venice Merchant is all about.”

Low said that despite low overall attendance due to the heat, market-goers have taken to the demos.

“People just seem to love it,” Low said. “The vast majority of people that have given us feedback love it. They say it’s an excellent event. There is no cost to participate so it’s nice that they can just wander by. Customers think that it’s engaging, that it’s fun.”

There is always a bottom line, of course, and Low said theirs is to help the farmers increase their sales, and the demos do seem to be helping in that respect.

“One week a farmer said, ‚ÄòThat was amazing, because you were actually featuring something we had on our table that week!’ You see they have this blackboard up at the demos and they put up where in the market they got the cheese and pumpkins and things from. And they say, ‘Go buy the pumpkin just beyond this way, at this booth.’ And this particular farmer had a very positive response and sold a lot of their product that day.”

Earlier this year, well before the start of the cooking demos, the two-decade tradition of pony rides and a petting zoo at the farmers market came to an end. Though the demos are not a direct replacement for those activities (they aren’t held in the same location), they are part of a new pilot program full of activities that came about following the end of the controversial pony rides and petting zoo.

“City Council directed us to test out activities that were not animal-related at the end of the pony contract,” Low said. “So we developed a pilot program. We call it the Educational and Entertainment Pilot Program and there’s a variety of activities included in that program.”

Low said the end of animal activities has elicited both positive and negative responses.

“So we’ve gotten a few people who’ve said thank you for getting rid of the ponies and the petting zoo, and we’ve had a lot of people say bring back the ponies, bring back the animal activities.”

Low noted that along with the Venice Merchant cooking demos, the pilot program will include pizza-making demonstrations, “mad scientists” who will make “slime” for kids and a poet who will make customized poems for patrons.

Apart from what the market is getting out of the deal, Donovan says that Venice Merchant is receiving the feedback they were hoping for when they started these demos.

“It’s all very positive,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of repeat visitors. Our hope is that we get more of those visitors and people make it a part of the farmers market experience.”

Donovan said that Venice Merchant would welcome any chef that enjoys cooking seasonally to come and do a demo.

The cooking demos are held every other Sunday and are located at Venice Merchant’s tent next to Ground Works Coffee at the Santa Monica Sunday Farmers Market, 2640 Main St.

jennifer@smdp.com

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