Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Urban Homesteading!

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Urban Homesteading at the SM Library Farmer’s Market Panel

Urban Homesteading: Owning what we eat.  It’s definitely a subject that’s gotten a good amount of focus these days.   Owning can come in the form of being conscious of what we put in our mouths, to eating local and organic, to the Mack Daddy of all actions: taking full responsibility for what we eat but growing it ourselves.    It’s no easy feat reclaiming the food chain, and many of us might get overwhelmed, but as cliché as it might sound (and remember clichés are clichés because they are true) a journey of a thousands miles really just starts with one step.     

And those taking, what at times are be scary but also fun, baby steps were celebrated last Thursday night at the Santa Monica Library’s quarterly Farmer’s Market Panel Series.  This event, entitled Urban Homesteading, focused on individuals paving the way with home gardens, restaurant gardens, and larger organically grown farms.  The event was moderated by chef and owner of Angeli Caffe, and KCRW Good Food host, Evan Kleiman.  The panel included a variety of food personalities: Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo, Emily Green, a gardening and horticulture contributor to the Los Angeles Times, and Ray Garcia of Executive Chef and amateur gardener of Fig Restaurant.

“I get approached a lot to help build up home gardens.  And the first thing I say is let’s get the soil alive again.   Let’s grow the soil,” explained Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farm.   “Grow a cover crop.  Plow it down.   Grow another crop.  Let’ get the soil good.”   “When I started gardening, one important thing I learned was that the vegetables really just hover over the soil,” explained Evan Kleiman.  “It’s so much like cooking.  I would dump compost onto my lawn and introduced worms.  It’s mixing and playing with ingredients to create a recipe for the soil.”  And all of that takes time, something that many of us can’t understand in this instant-on-demand world we now live in.  

“It’s dirty,” noted Green.  “When Tim Dunn shows up with a truck of manure and all you see are flies; at that moment it smells and your neighbors hate you.  It’s good to tell your neighbors the manure is coming so they can close their windows.”  “We have 3 acres of compost, green waste from Los Angeles and Ventura County, and the neighbors are complaining,” elaborated McGrath.   “People don’t like seeing it and the smell of it.  I like the smell of compost.  More and more people are trying to do it right but when done wrong it can catch on fire.   But we’re talking organic farming; commercial farming isn’t like that at all.“  “That’s a given, noted Kleiman.  “We’re in the Santa Monica bubble.”

To bust out yet another cliché, we learn more from our failures than from our successes.  “Organic farming is moody like cooking.   Mother nature is moody,” noted McGrath.   “You’re at the mercy of the elements.  So much of the way we cook presumes anything’s available all that time, that there’s no seasonality.” Growing your own food can be quite a humbling experience.  “If you’re starting a garden you really have to love failure because you’ll experience a whole lot of it.   I hear people say ‘mine died.’ And I say ‘Good!’” continued Emily Green.   “I’m a chef and I consider myself a novice garden,” stated Ray Garcia of Fig Restaurant.  “I wish there were more chefs attempting to grow food.  Before I started growing I would take for granted Phil’s stacks of carrots and beautiful tomatoes.  Trying to plant on Ocean and Wilshire… all I can say it was very humbling.”

“We have partnered with schools in Santa Monica,” continued Garcia.  “It’s a matter of motivating the students.  Just as a chef is inspired to get great ingredients; we’re inspiring them to grow.”  Kleiman inquired if Garcia had a dish in mind when he starts planning the school’s garden.   “I’m more growing to learn how to grow a vegetable and see what works with that soil,” explained Garcia.  “Other than that I leave it up to the kids.  Right now what they are growing at the school are radishes.   We’re very lucky to have not limits.”
“Just like cooking, there’s so many different recipes to grow.  There are 20 different ways to make a stock.    Working with 20 different kids at a high school we’re fortunate to grow food for ourselves.   And I find the lesson for myself is it’s okay to fail,” noted Garcia.  “The kids ask: what’s that or this?   And a lot of the time I don’t know.”  “I have the Blood Orange tree I planted 10 years ago and it just bared fruit for the first time,” noted Kleiman.   “It’s been so long, I feel like I have relationship with this tree.   And the fruit finally came in; and it’s awful!  But in another year it will make good marmalade.”

At Garcia’s restaurant Fig there is a whole section of the garden dedicated to herbs.  “Right outside the hotel I ripped up patches, taking it out piece by piece, and planting edible plants.”  “I do believe the future landscaping, that more and more development is going to be about edible landscaping,” noted McGrath. “No more sod, no more water needing plants.”   Kleiman noted considering our Los Angeles water issues, those who have chosen to forsake their lawn for a garden should get a water credit.   “If you tie in the iconography of the food it all starts to come together and make sense, but not always here.  On Orange Grove Blvd. they’re growing Magnolias,” noted Green.  “The street trees are orange trees in Seville.  What would be the harm if people eat the fruit?”

And with that point that the panel offered multiple suggestions for the multiple Santa Monica gardeners in the audience, “I want to give a couple of secrets,” stated McGrath.  “Feed the soil not the plant.   Whatever the diameter of the seed, plant twice as deep.  And don’t over water!   People come to me and say, ‘my tomatoes grow and are so green, but there’s no fruit.’   And I ask them ‘do you water every day?’ And they say proudly, ‘yes!’”   To which McGrath sighed a heavy sigh. “There’s another thing,” noted Green, “if you’re not growing from seed, which I definitely recommend, than shake all the Perlite.   Shake out all that nursery soil.   If you’re planting in the ground deep waterings are important.  Deep water and mulch, and prefer chicken manure to steer if you’re buying commercial manure.”

In regards to the numerous sunlight deficient backyards and space conscious apartment dwellers in Santa Monica, Emily Green offered the advice for those with balconies.  “I would just build some planters and pots.   If your balcony isn’t sturdy I would do wooden planters versus terra cotta pots.”  “Also morning light is the most important,” recommended McGrath.  “Shade is hard in a lot of people’s backyards.  I would try some edible shade plants like some lettuces.”  “Particularly in the summer when we can’t grow it because it’s too hot,” chimed Green.  “But whatever you grow be wary of using plastic containers.  They hold in water and when they get hit by the sun they boil and the soil gets contaminated.”  “I’ve stopped using plastic pots.  I’ve tried the paper ones, but I’ve learned the terra cotta work better,” noted Kleiman. “Terra Cottas are a miracles

Yes at the root, people primarily start growing because philosophically it’s the right thing to do, but growing food should be pleasurable, for the element of freshness you can’t find at the supermarket.   “Salad in window boxes are amazing,” noted Green.  “Once you taste fresh salad, shaking the stuff from the bag stops working for you.” “It actually becomes a lazy way to get food,” slyly noted Kleiman.  “When I’m home after shopping for the restaurant all day, I don’t want or need to get back into my car.  I can go downstairs and take some arugula, a chili pepper, mint, and a Meyer lemon and create a dish.”  

Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica writer who grows chives, peppermint, rosemary, and just planted some jalapenos yesterday.  You can find out more about her at  

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bringing the Cool to Santa Monica

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Basement Tavern on Main Street!

Bringing the Cool to Santa Monica
Basement Tavern

"For some reason, the cool bars in Hollywood have to be hard to find, and have no sign.  It's kind of like a speakeasy kind of thing. It's kind of cool. It's like you're in on some kind of secret, you know? You tell a chick you've been some place, it's like bragging you know how to find it."
So yes the above statement (delivered by Jon Favreau in Swingers) is true for the bars of Hollywood but chances are it never cross the minds of the people of Santa Monica that we’d truly have a gosh honest cool bar in our somewhat quiet beach town.  Yet seven months ago that’s exactly what happened with the appearance of the Basement Tavern @ the Victorian. 

One of the best kept secrets on Main Street.  Some people might not even know there’s a bar there because the Basement Tavern is hidden underneath the historic Victorian house in (where else of all places) the basement.  But we all know it’s not just the location that makes something cool (and while we’re talking about it there are a lot of things that can make a bar un-cool: pretentiousness, overcrowding, overpriced drinks, really anything that shows the seams that it’s trying to be cool, thus having it pass by the state of cool to the state of un-coolness).  

But Basement Tavern is cool.  A speakeasy (which is yes a super hip word in the bar world at the moment but works in this case) that has live music five days a week and nary a cover charge.   There’s no website so don’t even look (although there is a pretty active Facebook Page).  There no Red Bull and Vodka served on the premises (Hooray to that one) instead Santa Monica casualness is mixed with high class Bourbon mixology.  Oh, and there’s no sign (okay there’s one but its teeny tiny).

“The average guest is way smarter than you think they are,” notes Garner Gerson co-owner of the Basement Tavern.  He and his business partner Paulo Daguiar were interested opening the basement space at the Victorian with minimum modifications but both of them were aware that it had to be a very specific concept.  “We knew we couldn’t open up a dive bar, or a sushi restaurant, or a nightclub,” notes Garner.  “It had to be this bar.”   The bar has an ultra lounge feel that’s not overwhelming.  Garner continues, “it’s a place where people can go out and feel comfortable at a great price.”

Up until a year ago the Victoria was known as the place you go to for the farmers market or to do weddings yes, but not yet the hippest kid on the block.    This yellow shingled Victorian mansion has quite a history.   The building, actually built in 1892 and located near the Hotel Miramar, was picked up and moved to its Main Street location in 1973.   The building was then a variety of restaurants, but in 1989 Gerson’s father took over running the house and the Victorian House has been in the family ever since.  

A couple of years ago Garner and his brother Garrett considered utilizing the basement space, with hope of making it into the Ivy for the Westside.  Which is definitely tricky when we’re in the middle of an economic crisis and no one wants to spend seventeen dollars on a cocktail.   But the Boys of the Basement took it on as a challenge.  “What Paolo has done with price points of cocktails is amazing” notes Garner.  The Bourbon based cocktails at Basement Tavern all run between eight to ten dollars.   “This was able to happen by making specific choices, like not having cocktail service and bringing in Brad.”

Ah yes, Brad. If Garner and Paolo are the brains and the drive of the Basement Tavern than Brad Twigg is the heart and soul. (Both Garner and Paolo jokingly referred to Brad the unofficial mayor of Santa Monica.)  General Manager, mixologist, and music director Twigg wears many shirts at the Basement, some of them plaid.

Originally from Maryland, Brad moved here 10 years ago and along the way has worked at most of Santa Monica’s hotter spots; the World Café, Voda, 217, Wilshire, Big Dean’s just to name a few.  Working a bar definitely runs in his blood.  Growing up his mother was in the bar business and rumor has it that his great grandmother was one of the first female bartenders in Chicago. 

“I’ve always been a fan of Bourbon,” notes Brad. “In high school, the only thing we could afford to drink was Bourbon, bottles of Jim Beamy and Lord Calvert were $5.99 at the time.  It just sort of stuck.” As luck would have it what was once an economic necessity has become the cool drink of choice.   Although ten years ago this traditionally Southern drink was thought to be headed the way of the Hot Toddy, today it is gaining enormous popularity.  “I’m happy to work with brands.  We just brought in some new Bourbons so now we’re now up to 75 or so in total,” explains Brad with a smile.

Most of the Basement’s drinks are Bourbon based (although there are some Vodka offerings also for those looking for a more classic cocktails i.e. most (but not all) of the female patron population).  One of the most is popular is the Delia’s Elixir drink using Buffalo Trace Bourbon (a Kentucky Bourbon), Agave (which Brad prefers over simple syrup), fresh Raspberries, Lemon juice.   The drink is named after Delia the infamous ghost of the Victorian House.   Not much is know about her other than she was once employed at the Victorian when it was a residence and that she didn’t die in the house (something that is mentioned multiple times when talking about Delia to the Basement Boys, so superstitious customers worry not).

Now to get to the plaidness.  It’s best to say that Basement Tavern is now known as a “plaid friendly location.”  Inspired by the Wednesday night’s Bluegrass music, the plaid started just for fun with the bartenders wearing plaid for the Get Down Boys Bluegrass performances.   Then the patrons starting plaid-ing it up (and it should be noted we are also in the middle of a flannel fashion revolution) and then the Yelpers started writing about it.   Needless to say you were warned.  

These shirts are really just a symbol of one of the most important aspects to Basement Tavern’s feel: music.  ”Brad takes the music seriously,” notes Garner.  Sunday and Monday are dark for music.  Wednesdays is the aforementioned Bluegrass night, Tuesdays has Christopher Hawley an Jack Johnson-esque guitarist playing during the Santa Monica Food Trucks, Thursday is Jazz Funk Fusion night, and Friday and Saturday are twists on cover bands like Urban Dread, which plays reggae covers of top forty songs.   All without a cover.  Most of them Westside bands.   “I spend a lot of time here,” simply notes Brad.  “The music we play is important.”

Only a little over six months old and the Basement is already expanding.   Along with the tavern in the basement there is now a bar on the ground floor.  We thought what a fun idea to be at a bar and potentially not know there’s a bar underneath us,” notes Garner.   And as of last month the bar is now offering a full service dinner menu.   The cuisine is “Basement Food” aka what you want to eat when drinking Bourbon aka food you want to eat before drinking and/or after drinking: burgers with blue cheese, truffle fries, and kabobs with four different sauce choices.  The kitchen will always be open, serving food till two every night.  

On a larger more metropolitan level the Basement Tavern has the honor of being in charge of creating the liquor offerings for Cavalia, the equestrian show running in Burbank.   But don’t think that it won’t remember its roots.   On Valentine’s Day the bar will show its love for its community.  Guest who present a receipt form any Santa Monica Main Street restaurant from 5 to close will receive a glass of complementary Champagne.   

That is what the Basement strives to do: being big by acting with small details.  And it’s definitely living the dream. “I’ve always wanted to be doing what I’m doing right now,” notes Brad. 

And so coolness has come to Santa Monica.  Not with huge fanfare and a glaring sign, but the way cool always should roll in - smooth to the point of not being noticed, but once it’s there you definitely can feel a change to the temperature of everything surrounding it.  We’re just glad that Basement Tavern is doing it here, allowing Santa Monica to be just a little bit cooler.  

Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica based writer who can't define cool, but knows it when she sees it.  You can see more of her writings at 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Food Forward!

Volunteered with my little sis Kelly for Food Forward last Saturday. I've written about them before but in a nutshell volunteers go to homes and businesses of people who own fruit trees that are not using them and pick their tangelos and lemons (what we harvested on Saturday).

The fruit is then donated to a local food bank (in this case MEND Poverty and North Valley Caring Services) with the owners getting a tax write off for the market weight of their fruit. And the best part (other than being do-gooders) is that you get to climb up in trees (hooray!)

In total on Saturday we picked: - 26 boxes of fruit - Each box is approximately 45 lbs.

That means in two hours we picked over a thousand pounds of fruit!

If you're interested in climbing some trees (and doing some do-gooder work) check out Food Forward. They just put up their February pick schedule.