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Shopping with chef Luca Annunziata 

Charlotte's markets provide year-round inspiration for local restaurateurs

"I'll take all of it."

Ruddy-faced and sleepy-eyed, chef Luca Annunziata gestures toward the chalk-white turnips piled on A Way of Life Farm's tabletop display inside the cavernous shed at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. After receiving a nod of agreement, he walks behind the table, grabs the entire pile and lowers it into a black plastic crate. It's 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and the hunt for local ingredients is on.

Any normal person working a physically grueling job until midnight on Friday would welcome a Saturday morning lie-in. Not Luca. He's up by 6 a.m., heading to three different farmers markets in his white Toyota pickup every week, regardless of season or weather. "Even if I don't buy anything," he says, "I have to see my people." In a four-hour blitzkrieg, he'll talk with more than a dozen farmers, filling the bed of his truck before heading back to Passion8 to unload, rotate his stock and finalize the day's menu.

This frigid January morning, just after the season's first serious freeze, the chef is unsure what he'll find when he arrives at his first stop in Matthews. He parks in a space overlooking the Community Farmers Market, where only a couple of vendors are busy preparing their stalls. That's because it's nearly an hour before the opening bell. "Normally I try to put an order in, so I can load it and go," he says in a low voice. "Last week, everything was frozen [in the fields], so I don't know what to expect today."

The burly chef hops out to help carry totes of carrots and greens to New Town Farms' booth, before speaking briefly with owner Sam Koenigsburg about supplies for next week. Luca carefully examines mustard leaves that Eric and Cathy McCall have brought from Hot Pepper Farms, then strolls over to order sweet potatoes and turnips from Carl Wagner of Carlea Farms. Each time, Luca leaves a booth empty-handed, trailing the words, "I'll text you Tuesday." He pauses for a bear hug and a chat with market manager Pauline Wood before circling back to his truck.

In a 15-minute whirlwind, Luca has bought exactly nothing at his first stop. Even so, he feels the trip here is important. "I like to chat with the people that made this possible," he says, pointing to the still-empty aisles, "because they made my dream possible." When he opened the first Passion8 in Fort Mill in 2007, he had a third the number of seats that he serves today at his new Elizabeth location.

Would he have been able to feed a 120-seat restaurant locally when he first opened? "Probably not, not right away," he muses. "But as the community grows, farming's growing. They saw that the Charlotte market was growing because more people want local." Over the past seven years he's seen enormous growth in the number of farms and the varieties of products available to him, from multicolored cauliflower to fresh seafood direct from the N.C. coast.

Pulling back onto 485, Luca steers toward Yorkmont Road, site of Charlotte's Regional Farmers Market. Entering one end of the main shed, he moves efficiently from station to station, checking in with farmers he knows well: Rosemary Pete, Michele at Bosky Acres, Rijad from Clover Farms. Turnips, butternut squash, mushrooms, eggs and cheese pile up, slowly filling the bed of his truck. He shakes hands with Tom Condron of Lumiere and chats with the Observer's Kathleen Purvis. By the time he's stashed his checkbook and headed toward South Boulevard, it's only 9:15. He has one more market to go.

Parked in the vendors' area behind the Atherton market, Luca pauses for a few moments to talk about his dedication to sourcing as much as possible from the region surrounding his restaurant. "We know what's coming each year," he says, describing the short list of vegetables available during the coldest months. "You've got to be smart about it, like playing with the weather and talking to the farmers."

With the freeze approaching, he bought an entire field's worth of cauliflower to store for the upcoming weeks. Faced with months of beets, he brings his creativity into play, creating vinaigrettes, gels and gastrique sauces to incorporate their flavor without boring the palate. "So it doesn't look like ... shit, it's beets again this year?"

Walking into the warm hubbub of Atherton market, he quickly runs into Paul Verica of Heritage and Clark Barlowe of Heirloom, both on their own multi-market circuits. They greet each other as comrades, dedicated chefs in search of the area's freshest bounty. After swapping handshakes and comments on sources, Luca melts into the humming crowd, a modern day hunter continuing an age-old tradition.

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