Chow main: Denise Yetzer produces results

This is the first in a series portraying some of the people-­ besides the chefs, of course-­ who play crucial roles in the local restaurant scene. It's also a clever way for Dish writer Christina Ball to manage her annual epicurean jaunt to Italy. –editor

Now that terms like "hydroponic" and "heirloom" are as familiar to grocery store shoppers as "plum" and "Roma," most of us can distinguish a good tomato from a bad one.

But for "produce lady" Denise Yetzer, making sure more of us get plump, sweet, juicy tomatoes-­ not to mention crisp mesclun greens, trendy pea tendrils, and just-ripe pears and figs-­ at local restaurants is more of a mission than a matter of personal taste.

You see, as president, sales manager, and co-owner (with Spencer Morris) of Piedmont Fresh Corporation LLC, doing business as both the C-Ville Market and Cavalier Produce, Yetzer provides a healthy crop of local eateries with fresh produce year-round-­ from upscale kitchens like Oxo, Fleurie, and Fuel to newcomers Zocalo, Magnolia, Mas, and West Main, to franchises like Subway and Ruby Tuesday.

 And now that she has added Charlottesville City Schools (she already serves UVA) to her growing customer list, Yetzer is also a major proponent of healthy eating for kids. (Ketchup is not a vegetable in her view!)

A specialty produce expert from Maryland, Yetzer and her early-bird husband Steve (who gets up at 2:30am to handle operations, shipping, and buying for Piedmont Fresh) came to Charlottesville four years ago to work with Four Seasons Produce. When the out-of-state owners of Four Seasons decided to sell, the Yetzers and Morris decided to bite the bullet and buy (and transform) the company.

"We felt strongly about giving people a local produce choice in Charlottesville," Yetzer says. You see, before these new kids came to the block, Standard Produce had a virtual monopoly on the restaurant market.

"I always take it personally when we can't come through for a customer," she says. But after talking to many local chefs, it seems they can only remember Yetzer's virtues, the many times she's come through for them in a pinch.

"Denise understands the level of operation we're running here," says Ivan Klavans-Rekosh, co-chef, along with Andrew Silver, of Zocalo. "She knows exactly how we like our avocadoes, and she'll make sure we get them-­ even if it means delivering them herself on her day off."

"We abuse Cavalier Produce, and they go all out for us," says Oxo chef/co-owner John Haywood. "If we give her 24 hours' notice, Denise can find just about anything."

Restaurants depend on produce providers like Yetzer for both practical decisions and culinary inspiration. To keep her kitchens informed, she sends out a weekly specialty produce update (cherries and baby artichokes were listed in May), offers samples, and encourages chefs to visit her facility to see, smell, touch, and taste the merchandise.

"If we're drawing a blank, we'll stop by Cavalier Produce to come up with new ideas," Andrew Silver says. When it came time for Zocalo to add a few spring dishes to its menu, Denise's collaboration was essential in helping them find, for example, the baby gold and red beets essential to their "sweet and sour baby beet salad."

They clearly adore her, but how does Yetzer like working so closely with chefs? "Some can be temperamental, others quite demanding," she admits. "But they constantly impress me with their creativity. I love to frequent the restaurants we sell to and see what wonders they create out of raw produce."

Denise Yetzer nibbles on a trendy pea tendril.