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.”

Alma Restaurant Rooftop Garden Project: Beginnings

It happened, and I knew it would, I have officially run out of room at the Flower Ave Garden in Venice. My new mission, if I chose to accept it (you best believe I have!) is to find more space for Alma’s veggies!!

Thankfully the success of my mission came in the form of a tiny rooftop space directly above the restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. It isn’t ideal, the space is small, the roof a bit old and could probably use some repairs, but it is a good fix for the short term.

Once again I owe a HUGE thanks to Tony, the ranch owner in Santa Barbara. He and his family drive down every Wednesday to sell produce in the Santa Monica’s farmers market. On his last trip he brought down a truckload of buckets filled with beautiful Santa Barbara soil…and of course donkey shit 😉

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I decided to repurpose crates to turn into planters. I lined the inside with landscaping material that will allow for proper drainage. They are lightweight, portable, and can easily be setup or moved.

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The next step was to design a trellis system for the beans that I planted in the crates. I used these buckets, anchored with brick and filled with concrete to make movable posts. Then up to the rooftop to zip-tie the fencing to the posts!

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Alma’s rooftop garden also acts as good practice for me, as I am patiently awaiting our next step in urban farming…a warehouse rooftop! Stay tuned kids =)

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“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

~Walt Disney

The Changing Landscape of The American Farmer (Article published on theultimateyogi.com)

It’s possible that the only place you will see a farmer standing in overalls with a pitchfork these days is on a package of some highly processed food, selling you the imagery that the food was made by said overall-wearing, pitchfork-welding farmer. But in actuality, the nostalgic image couldn’t be further from the truth, and the story of who is bringing cheap, commoditized food to our plates is starting to be told.

Who grows our food?

The veil is slowly being lifted for millions of Americans, and as a nation we are beginning to see what it really looks like to be a farmer in America. We’d like to believe that at the other end of that Moons Over My Hammy breakfast sandwich from Denny’s is a farmer carefully harvesting the eggs from happy chickens roaming around the farm, hand-milking the cows for the cheese, while his wife pulls fresh sourdough from the oven, ready to slice. Ok, so maybe we don’t all take it that far, but we can certainly admit to being blissfully ignorant of just who is growing and raising our food in America.

Urban Farming is Here

As our nation reaches a tipping point with out food system, we are beginning to look at the new emerging face of the American Farmer. Like splinter-cells rising out of they tyrannical strong hold of “big food”, the small farmer is finding a renaissance in this country like never before. A new generation of Americans have seen the pitfalls of our current food system and are starting to take interest in things like urban farming and urban homesteading.

A new Revolution

The 60’s had the civil rights movement and free love, the 80’s had punk rock and anti-authoritarian ideologies, today we have the urban farmer. Furthermore, just as these movements had a specific focus (i.e. playing music and boycotting war), they spoke to a generational counter-culture movement that galvanized and mobilized.

So what happens to a society where growing your own food can be one of the biggest acts of rebellion? You support the rebellion. You foster it. You empower the youth of the movement to keep going, keep seeking truth, and keep their independence from “the man”; show them that their health and their environment are not for sale. Make it cool to be a farmer, make it sexy to work with your hands, and play in the dirt. Let Hollywood catch on to the movement, let political leaders take note that if they support food system reform, then they will be supported by votes. You encourage a new generation of farmers, that’s what you do. You make being a farmer and actual career possibility.

A common thread

To open society’s mind to what the modern American farmer is will be the next step in the evolution of farming in the US. This is done through storytelling. Sharing stories of urban farmers in New York that are using rooftops to feed a neighborhoods, residents in LA turning their front lawns into vegetable gardens to market to chefs, regular folks brewing their own beer to sell to microbreweries. These are all examples of the modern American farmer, and all examples of reform.

Be the change

As consumers, we hold all of the power in our hands. Want to see change? Vote with your dollar. Want to encourage and support the local small farmer? Buy local! Eat at restaurants that serve ingredients grown by local farmers. Shop at farmers markets, and cook your own food. Make it impossible to ignore that a paradigm shift is taking place, and change is happening now.

Courtney Guerra

Courtney Guerra

Courtney Guerra is the co-founder of the urbanfarmmovement.com and also has her own blog. She studied cooking at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone and fell in love with farming while working in the garden for The Restaurant at Meadowood.

Flower Ave Garden Project: RADish

We had our fist harvest of radish come out of the garden! They couldn’t be more beautiful. Just another sign that So Cal is going to be a perfect location for this culinary garden.

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One of the big advantages of a restaurant having their own garden, is they get to dictate what size they would like the radish harvested at. You can have itty bitty ones that make a delicate statement on a plate:

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Or you can have medium sized ones that have a little more ‘meat’ on their bones:

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Kris lives at the house and part of the perk of having a culinary garden in your front yard is access to fresh veggies!

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And to wrap up the day we had some neighbors visit. Courtney, baby Mika, and 7 year old Mark stopped by to check out the garden and ask questions. Come to find out that Courtney and her family are urban farmers as well! She told me they had a few things planted and grew edamame last season and it came out sweet and delicious. I sent them home with some fave bean starters, I hope they enjoy! I think it is a beautiful thing that Courtney is teaching her family what it looks (and tastes) like to grow your own food, they are the next generation of farmers this country needs! And baby Mika is obvy really in to fava beans 😉

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“That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation often becomes the height of wisdom in another.”

~Adlai Stevenson

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: La Vicotria!

To some this may just look like an unassuming old jar of La Victoria salsa filled with some dried lawn clippings, but to me it is an act of kindheartedness and love!

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The story behind the little jar is this:

A few weeks ago a nice woman stopped by to admire the garden. She told me that she had a little space where a few herbs grew, but mostly it was overgrown with volunteer coriander (cilantro). I told her that I didn’t have any planted and she offered to bring me seeds from her plants. I completely forgot about the interaction until I came home the other day and found the jar full of coriander seeds waiting for me!

These will be a beautiful start to my herb garden. I don’t know if I will ever see the kind woman again to thank her and share the story behind the Flower Ave Garden. But I love that so many little stories like this are woven into the very essence of this place. It is quickly turning into sacred ground and is being built with love!

“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any other human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

~Etienne de Grellet, Quaker Missionary

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