Meanwhile, Back At The Snail Ranch (Article featured in TakePart.com)

Credit: Willy Blackmore

A Los Angeles restaurant is turning to a front-yard garden for its vegetables—and some slow-food protein too.

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Snails have an ignoble reputation in America: Not only are they pests, but invasive ones at that. Helix aspera’s leaf-munching presence in gardens and farms around the country is an irritating legacy of France’s less easily understood culinary mores (see also: horse, frog’s legs, ortolan).

But if you’re in the restaurant business, faced with the choice of either serving imported snails or paying as much as $30 per pound for their domestic counterparts, the supposed backyard pest can quickly turn into a welcome friend.

So alongside the fava beans, radishes and beets Courtney Guerra tends at her Flower Avenue Garden in Venice, CA, are snails. And they’re there by design.

Guerra, 32 years old, is tanned and blonde, looking more like a Venice surfer than anyone you might peg as a farmer. Her working attire veers more toward Lululemon gear rather than anything cut from ochre duck canvas.  She started the Flower Avenue Garden back in January, when she moved to Venice after working in the rarefied world of Napa Valley restaurants.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and cooking for a private caterer, Guerra worked with Christine Kim, the head gardener at Meadowood, in St. Helena. Kim oversees a half-acre of crops, an apiary, hen house and a herd of goats for the three-Michelin star restaurant. Guerra’s hope is to adapt that kind of operation to the city, building gardens dedicated to supplying restaurants with produce and other products, like those snails.

“That’s been the reason why I really moved down here in the first place,” Guerra tells me as we walk among the beds of turnips, fava beans and obscure greens like New Zealand spinach and ice lettuce. “I really fell in love with farming, but then it was like, OK, if we want to reform our food system in any way, we have to think of alternative ways to get our food. Because what we have going on right now pretty much everyone can agree is not working. So, I was like, I’m not one to turn down a challenge, so let’s do this in L.A.”

The snails are picked off the branches of a friend’s organic cherimoya orchard in Santa Barbara, where they’re very much unwelcome. After driving them south, Guerra places them in a muddy, subterranean box, about four-foot square, where they feed on radishes, turnips and greens. Twice a week, Guerra swings open the plywood lid, casting daylight down on the slow, sliming packs, and plucks out 50 or so specimens. Those snails are starved for a few days, which purges their slimy bodies of any gritty dirt they’ve sucked up, before they travel 15 miles east, to Alma, a Downtown L.A. restaurant run by chef-owner Ari Taymor.

Taymor, 27, grew up in the Bay Area, and the scent memories of the chaparral and redwoods are a major influence in his cooking—his is a culinary effort to distill California onto a plate. So it’s no wonder that it was a meal at Chez Panisse that pushed him toward a career in the kitchen, andAlice Waters’ local-food ethos has influenced his own cooking philosophy.

Before opening Alma last year, Taymor had his own experience working with a traditional restaurant-garden setup. In 2010, he spent six months working at La Chassagnette, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Southern France’s Camargue, just outside of Arles. But Alma, which sits next door to a hostess dance club, where patrons pay women by the minute for grope-y turns around the dance floor, is substantially removed from the rural swamps of Provence, where, like Napa, agriculture is a common industry.

For Taymor and Ashleigh Parsons, Alma’s co-owner and general manager, the business is something more than a restaurant—it’s a means of being involved in a community, a lofty ideal that’s exemplified by the health and wellness after-school program they run at two nearby schools, both of which serve students who live in neighborhoods underserved by grocery stores. And while Guerra’s business may be about growing esoteric ingredients like buckwheat sprouts and caraway greens for chefs, she also sees the garden as a way to show the potential for an urban space to grow food.

Taymor says it was the impressive produce from Flower Avenue that sold him on working with Guerra, and she similarly felt that the Alma kitchen staff would treat her painstakingly raised vegetables appropriately. But it would appear that chef and gardener make excellent partners on a level that goes beyond what’s in the dirt and what’s on the plate; both think in big, somewhat didactic terms, and they strive to run businesses that do more than make money—they want to feed, to inspire.

“It was actually like dirt with a futon frame in the front and bikes in the back. It was just a bunch of bachelors who lived here,” Guerra says of the one-story Venice bungalow she moved into at the beginning of the year. She broke ground on January 4, digging up the front yard, mixing in manure, compost, and a truckload of soil hauled down from the cherimoya orchard. And she’s working with good dirt to start with, judging by the area’s history. “The land here in Venice was actually an old bean farm,” Guerra says she learned from a neighbor. “Before all of these housing tracts went in there, it was all beans.”

Simple two-by-six frames hem in the crops in the front yard of the corner lot; a tall magnolia tree casts a patch of shade over a portion of the garden, which Guerra is learning to take advantage of, planting lettuces and agretti, a coastal succulent with a snappy, salty bite, around its base. Save the variety and density of what’s growing there, Guerra’s yard isn’t much different from the other yards on the street—or the millions of other plots Angelenos choose to fill with roses, bougainvillea, succulents or California poppies.

“You could have half of the stuff that I have coming out of this garden and you and your neighbors would be lousy with vegetables,” Guerra tells me as we stand in her backyard, where I can see her neighbor picking lemons off a tree on the other side of a low stucco wall. His citrus might not be destined for a restaurant that Jonathan Gold raved about in the Los Angeles Times, but he’s quietly practicing part of what Guerra’s preaching. “I think that says a lot about what kind of power you can hold in terms of what role you can play in your food system. Basically, you should be buying meat, dairy and grains from a grocery store. Everything else you can provide for yourself.”

Taymor and his kitchen staff are prepping for dinner service when I speak to him about working with Flower Avenue. He moves between the stove and a cutting board, charring and chopping strawberries he then purées in a blender, listing the ingredients from Venice that are featured on the menu that night as he works. “We’re using her radishes, her turnips, some of her carrots, we’re for sure using her snails, we’re using a bunch of different greens.”

“We’re starting to see what the potential volume is” for produce from Flower Avenue, Taymor says. “The goal, at first, is to have the tasting menu be exclusively out of the garden, and then, from there, to move the menu toward that if we can get a bigger garden.”

And that’s the perennial challenge of re-envisioning Napa and the Camargue in the Southern California sprawl. Yards may be common, but a few continuous acres are hard to come by. Walking through Guerra’s greenhouse, the metal racks packed with two-by-two dirt squares of cucumber, squash, basil and fennel seedlings, it becomes clear that what is essentially a very ambitious home garden is only one step toward a self-sustaining restaurant.

“I kind of knew going into it that this would be an issue, obviously,” Guerra admits as she walks by one of the last unplanted pieces of dirt on the property, a small, oddly shaped patch that will soon be blanketed with herbs. “I’m already running out of room or have run out of room, actually. And that’s really frustrating for me because I can’t give chef a really nice bulk harvest of broccoli.”

“As much as I love it, I sometimes see limitations in terms of scope and scale and water and stuff like that,” Taymor acknowledges. “But we really want to be embedded in the community, and to be embedded in the community in this way, to actually have a place where people can see where our food comes from and to participate in it, it makes a big difference.”

(One) Farm-to-Table: Courtney Guerra and Alma’s Ari Taymor on Farmer-Chef Monogamy (Article from BonAppetit.com)

Credit: Matt Duckor, Bon Appetit Assistant Editor

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I’m standing in front of a modest home in Venice, California. There’s a popular cafe down the street that serves sixteen different types of breakfast cereal and, behind the house, 1,000 square feet of white strawberries, scarlet frill mustard, and breakfast radishes. Venice is in Los Angeles, but this sure doesn’t feel like it.

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The greenhouse belongs to farmer Courtney Guerra, and the micro bronze fennel she’s growing is for Ari Taymor, the chef-owner of Alma.

“What size do you want for the micro?” asked Guerra.

“Micro what?”

“Bronze fennel. What presence do you want it to have on the dish?”

That’s exactly the sort of conversation Guerra hoped she’d have when she moved to Los Angeles.

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Formerly a cook and gardener at The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, Guerra’s aim was to work closely with one L.A. restaurant, supplying it with produce. That exclusive relationship would allow her to focus on what the chef wants planted, when that chef wants it picked, and how much of it the chef needs, not to mention the unified flavor the comes from ingredients growing in the same patch of dirt. She had a friend in Venice who wasn’t using his yard–that is, “besides to store futons, trash and office furniture”–so she moved in and had the garden up and running in a matter of weeks.

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At first, Guerra says, she “felt like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it, he will come.'” She didn’t have to wait long. This past Valentine’s Day (a coincidence, I’m told), she met Taymor through Rustic Canyon Wine Bar chef Jeremy Fox. The two clicked and quickly signed an exclusive contract.

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Only one dish on Alma’s menu is currently made up of Guerra exclusives: An early spring salad featuring frill mustard, buckwheat, pea trendril, among other things. But the plan is for everything to come from the garden by early next year. And then there are the snails. Guerra selects them in the morning and Taymor served them to you after being sautéed in garlic and butter at night. They are delicious and evidence that every restaurant should raise its own snails.

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While nearly every restaurant that opens its reclaimed wood doors these days preaches farm-to-table (and a handful of LA restaurants grow their own herbs and limited produce), none match the scope and ambition of Guerra and Taymor. In December, Fox told me he hoped to have a garden supply his restaurant like he had when he was chef atUbuntu, but that it was at least a few years off. While Guerra’s garden is perfect for the 30-seat Alma, it couldn’t exclusively support a high-volume restaurant. Not yet.

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So yes, this is new ground for L.A. “I try to explain to people people–not restaurant people–what it is I do here,” says Guerra. “I think when people see it, that we’ve taken nothing and turned it into a restaurant’s culinary garden, they’ll get that you don’t need two acres in Napa Valley to have something that works.”

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Still, expanding out of someone’s backyard would be nice. So Guerra and Taymor are looking up. Literally–they’re working on a 60,000 square-foot rooftop garden in downtown L.A., where Alma is located. That means more room for everything she plans on growing, including fava beans, Ryokuho broccoli, purple peacock broccoli, and sea kale. For now, I’ll settle for another order of snails and the best salad I’ve had all year.

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http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/badaily/2013/03/alma-farm-venice-california.html

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
~Harriet Tubman

Coastal Foraging In Southern California…(a.k.a. Going Coastal)

My job got a whole lot more awesome…if that’s even possible!

I set aside one day per work week completely devoted to foraging for Alma Restaurant. This usually involves going out into the wilderness somewhere to find edible items to bring back to Chef Taymor. This trip I went coastal 😉

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I had to head a bit north of LA; unfortunately much of the direct LA coast line is too polluted to forage. But venture a bit north of LA and the coastline is  very much alive and full of beautiful edible products. Like the sea grass growing here:

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I was amazed how many varieties of seaweed I encountered. Each having their own unique texture and flavors.

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Some were more briny than others, some were more tender and delicate. The  minerality of the seaweeds also varied depending on whether or not they were growing in sand or on rocks.

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Just as vegetables in the garden differ in size, flavor, and texture,  so too did the sea vegetables I harvested.

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I feel as if I have just discovered a whole new world in coastal foraging and I feel so blessed to live in such an abundant and fertile region of the US!

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

~Marcel Proust

Flower Ave Garden Project: New Structures

All of the raised beds in the front are IN!! It was an intense day, building into the evening just to get everything done. After about 10 hours of sawing and drilling and measuring and leveling, they were finally finished. It was one of those days that had to be ended with a cold beer in a hot shower.

beds complete

The bottom of each bed is lined with ground covering to prevent weeds. The beds will be filled with soil and soon will be ready to be planted!

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The greenhouse is changing every day. My fava bean seeds have sprouted and are looking forward to being planted in their permanent home in the beds out front.

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“Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures.”
~ John F. Kennedy

Flower Ave Garden Project: The Stakeout

I was able to get a good look at what the garden will be like once the raised beds are in. All of the beds were measured and marked, then outlined with twine

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Some of my first seeding projects took place as well. I soaked my fava seeds before I seeded them, to increase the rate of germination.

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I discovered that my old toques from culinary school make the perfect lining for my seeding trays! They are lightweight and breathable, and will let moisture pass through without falling apart. An education from the Culinary Institute of America, the gift that keeps on giving 😉

toque seeder

I was also able to get my chalkboard wall with my 2013 garden calendar up! Next step is to find someone who can bedazzle the wall with cool chalk art…currently accepting submissions from muralists :p

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