(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

Foraging in Santa Barbara, CA

5am wake up calls are made less sucky if it means you get to forage in Santa Barbara all day. Having lived in Santa Barbara for almost 10 years, I have a pretty good lay of the land.

My first foraged item of the day were these beautiful apple succulent tips. These tiny little guys are just as their namesake; crisp, tart, and refreshing!

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Next up were these wild radish blossoms. Not only pretty, they add a nice spice as a garnish!

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There is a sloping hillside on the ranch that I foraged on, it is shaded and cool. Everything that grows in this area is lush and green. I was so excited to find these little fiddle head ferns along the base of the hillside!

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The climate couldn’t have been better, a mild 70 degrees in February. As the light shone through the canopy of trees, I came across a beautiful field of wild nasturtium.

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And adjacent to that was another field, full of wild New Zealand spinach (also known as Tetragonia tetragonioides). This is a beautiful field green, that is tender and crisp.

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Next stop was the top of the hill, overlooking the Pacific. Just a half mile up the road and the climate changed drastically from the shaded hillside. It was much warmer, and there was wild mustard everywhere!

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Even my dog Moo was getting in on the foraging action! Except I think he was trying to forage lizards :p

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We headed back down the hill to the Cherimoya orchards to look for some Santa Barbara snails!

Cerimoya are a beautiful fruit with white, candy-like flesh. They soften as they ripen, just like a banana.

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We also came across these almond blossoms. They smell sweet and almondy, just as you would expect the flower from this tree to be =]

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And finally…JACKPOT! We found our Santa Barbara escargot, fed off of organic cherimoya trees. Hopefully these guys will like their new digs in Venice.

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My car was packed to the brim with all of my foraged treasures. I’m so excited to share a piece of this beautiful place with diners in LA!…but not excited to get back to the traffic =-/

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“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

~Jawaharlal Nehru

Quail Hunting In The Sisquoc

I have to begin this post with saying as a person who eats 90% of their meals vegetarian, and 85% of those meals vegan, I am sensitive to those who do not agree with hunting. In fact, for many years I would have included myself as one of those people. I mainly choose to eat this way for two reasons. First, I listen to my body. And I simply feel better not eating much meat or dairy. Second, it is my way of boycotting the way the majority of meat and dairy is produced in this country. I know I am just one person, but hopefully I can make some small difference by voting with my dollar.

So how did I come to the point where I wanted to explore what hunting was all about? Well, recently I read the Faviken cookbook, and it helped me to understand that we can have a symbiotic and beautiful relationship with the natural world around us. It was inspiring to learn that age old traditions are still upheld in today’s culinary world, in every detail imaginable. This includes hunting, foraging, and farming for many things on your menu.

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I was lucky enough to live on a ranch in Santa Barbara. And it was here that I met Tony, the owner of the ranch. I knew he hunted on a regular basis, and asked if I could join him on his next outing. He told me that he and Graham (owner of Los Padres Outfitters who runs horseback tours and excursions) were going to the Sisquoc to go quail hunting for three days and I was welcome to join; I quickly accepted his invitation!

There was a group of six of us that headed on horseback into the San Rafael wilderness. We unloaded the horses and gear at the Nira trailhead, and started off the Manzana trail. Our final destination was about 8 miles into the wilderness, to a small cabin owned by a friend of Tony’s. The region is so remote that only a few inhabitants live on the trail.

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The cabin we were staying at was located in between Dabney Cabin and the Manzana school house (as shown below)

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The trail was long and winding. Full of beautiful scenery, and rugged terrain.

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After about 2 hours of riding, we finally came upon the cabin. The billowing of smoke from the chimney was a welcome sight as it was quite chilly out.

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Luckily the owner of the cabin was a skilled craftsman and had welded an old buoy into a fireplace. This thing was AMAZING, and heated the entire cabin. The outside temp the evening we got in read 18 degrees!

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   We unpacked the horses and our gear, and settled in for the night. There were no phones, no computers, no hot water, a few hours of light from a gas powered generator, and some good whisky to keep us warm.  Spirits were high as we tucked in for an early morning wake up call for the hunt.

As dawn broke, the horses began to stir and the dogs at our feet started to whine with excitement for the new day. I was in charge of breakfast for the morning , and made some Johnny Cakes with a spiced apple topping. Johnny Cakes are like pancakes but made with cornmeal. The apples were picked fresh from Tony’s ranch the day before we left and the cakes were cooked to crisp perfection in the cast iron skillet.

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Here’s the simple recipe that was a perfect fit for the rustic setting:

1/2 cup flour

1 cup cornmeal

1 to 2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 cup hot milk

1 tablespoon shortening

Combine the ingredients, heat oil in the skillet. Drop batter in hot skillet, and flip after golden brown

For the apple topping:

2 lbs apples, diced

1T cinnamon

3T brown sugar

1t nutmeg

.5t salt

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Heat in large sauce pot until apples soften. Serve warm.

After breakfast we packed up the horses and headed to the Sisquoc riverbed, just a short ride from our cabin. Along the way we picked up three friends; donkeys that were living in the area. As natural pack animals, they were happy to join our posse for the day.

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I felt very luck to be joining such skilled huntsmen. Dave, Graham, and Tony had been hunting most of their lives, and were excellent trackers. They were able to teach me a lot about how to read animal tracks, what to look for on the hunt, and gun safety.

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One of the most surprising things I learned from the hunt, was how many parallels it shared with being an athlete. To be a successful hunter you have to operate in the moment and rely on all of your senses. It can be physically demanding, and when hunting in a group it is imperative to communicate, and work together towards a common goal…these are also parallels I draw to working in a kitchen.

In the end, the hunt was a success!

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I’m looking forward to the next time I can go out with Graham and Tony. They shared many stories of living off of the land, and being closely connected with the natural world around them. It was refreshing and energizing being able to get off the grid for a few days, and I feel I have a closer understanding of what it is to have an active role in my food system. I have the utmost respect for the quail that we caught, and no part of the beautiful bird went to waste.

“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
~John Muir