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.”

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: Gatekeeper

Everyday, little by little, the garden is taking shape. I have a looooong list of little projects to get done, and building an actual gate for the front was top on the list!

Designing the frame for the gate was step one.

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The next step was tacking on the fencing to close in the frame of the gate.

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I had a little help with the next step. My parents were in town for a few hours with a layover from LAX to Seattle, so I put ’em to work! They were able to get the holes dug for the fence post, and were able to offer TONS of great advice as they are both very experienced builders.

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After the posts were measured and the holes were dug and the parents were dropped back off at the airport, it was off to my home away from home, Home Depot to pick up some concrete.

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I couldn’t have done it without the help from this little guy! He helped me keep everything level as I poured the concrete.

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Coming in to this project, the most experience I had with power tools or construction was hanging a shelf from Ikea. It’s been so fun to learn to build things, it’s empowering! I think the gate came out rather well if I do say so myself 😉

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And to finish up the day, we had another visitor! Janene lives two blocks away, and did a U-turn once she saw the garden. She just retired from teaching at an elementary school for the LAUSD. She told me of some budding programs for school gardens around LA. It was inspiring to hear about others teaching our kids the importance of staying connected to their food system, and what REAL FOOD looks like!

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It has been such a wonderful blessing to get to share this garden with others. Everyone who comes here loves the garden for different reasons; and all of these different reasons are all reasons why I started the garden! To educate about farming, to connect people to their food, to stay active, to grow and eat healthy food, to encourage others to do the same, to have a working garden in an urban setting…the list goes on!

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

~Henry David Thoreau

Flower Ave Garden Project: Signs

I get a lot of questions from neighbors and people passing by who are curious about what I am planting. I thought it would be helpful to put up signs of what is planted in each bed.

Since I could practically be considered an Eagle Scout at this point, I dusted off the old wood-burning kit and gathered some scrap wood left over from building.

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They turned out great and I hope it will help a curious passerby.

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“Words are but the signs of ideas.”

~Samuel Johnson

Flower Ave Garden Project: Fava Beans And A Nice Chianti (fuhfuhfuh)

Ok, so maybe no cannibalism took place, but yesterday was a landmark day for the Flower Ave Garden…I was able, after a lot of blood sweat tears and splinters, to get some things planted!!

We began to fill the beds with soil. The first layer was the soil brought down from the ranch in SB; it contained more sand and will help with drainage.

Beds Half Filled

The second layer is of the native soil. One of the neighbors told me that this area used to be bean fields before being developed into the residential area it is today. That explains why the soil is so rich and fertile! It’s funny because LA is very much an urban city so it’s easy to forget that at one time, before all of the cars and smog and traffic and people, that this land was wide open. I loved to learn that it was old farmland… I’m hoping that this soil remembers its roots and is happy to help grow vegetables again.

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After the native soil went in, I topped it off with compost, and blended it all the best I could.

Beds Filled

I usually like to direct sow (which means planting a seed directly in the ground) fava beans, but I needed to get them started and didn’t have the beds out front ready, so I seeded them in pots. You can see the root structure already beginning.

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All of my favas are in the beds, tucked in tight!

Row Of Favas

Rows Of Favas

It makes me have to stop and enjoy this moment. So much planning and groundwork went in to getting the garden to this point and I am so thankful for all of the help I had; there is NO WAY I could have done it alone! I’m looking forward to seeing the changes spring will bring to this quiet little garden…good things on the horizon!

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“What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.”
~Margret Thatcher

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.

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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 First Of Many

Today was a great day, we got the first bed built for the front garden! It will serve as the prototype for the rest of the beds going in. It’s constructed of redwood to prevent rotting.

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We framed out the bottom of the bed first, and secured the sides with 4x4s.

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A miter saw was used to cut angles and had a sweet “laser” (insert Austin Power voice here)

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We put one more level of 2x6s and were able to complete the first bed!! We’ve got about 5 more of various sizes to construct, but working all the kinks out on this first was was a big step in the right direction.

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“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth, We are happy when we are growing.”
~William Butler Yeats