Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Menu Minuet - Restaurants and Farmers at the SMPL

Menu Minuet
Last Thursday Santa Monica held its Farmers Markets 2010 Quarterly Library Panel Series. This panel, entitled “Menu Minuet,” focused on how chefs and farmers keep seasonal produce on the plate while maintaining consistency on the menu. As always there were some heavy hitters of the panel:
  • Mark Peel- Chef of Campanile, Tar Pit, and the Point
  • Akasha Richmond- Chef of Akasha
  • Romeo Coleman- Farmer of Coleman Family Farm
  • Alex Weiser- Farmer of Weiser Family Farms
The event was moderated by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Jonathan Gold, who had just returned from New York after receiving the Craig Clairborne award in restaurant reporting from the James Beard Society (just think of it as the Oscars of the food world). Gold began by celebrating the clout of the famers noting that Weiser Family Farms’ potatoes were “the Rock Stars of the plate, that with one bite you know it’s a Weiser potato,” and of Coleman’s herbs “that they make my editor’s weak in the knees.”

When looking at the philosophy of a seasonal menu Mark Peel, who was the dominant force on the panel noted “I’m lazy. It’s easier dealing with food in season. It’s easier to take something that’s beautiful from the Farmers Market because it tells you what to do. “ That being said, today’s culture holds certain expectations for getting any food year round. Melons, tomatoes, and basil all have a specific season, but that doesn’t stop restaurant customers from demanding them. Everyone had their limits, Coleman noted how if you asked for Basil in February “you’d better be wearing a bikini.” But other items were a necessary evil. “You’re not going to get Heirloom Tomatoes in the winter, but people expect tomatoes,” explained Akasha, “I’m pretty freaky with my produce, but tomatoes are tough. In the winter I use Cherry Tomatoes for the burgers. I use canned organic tomatoes for the pizza. But I would never serve Mozzarella and tomatoes in February.”

The panel talked about their early approaches to growing, selling, and creating food. Weiser explained how his father bought their farm as a tax shelter. “In the beginning we just jumped in and lost a lot of money,” he noted of their 160 acres, which was originally an apple orchard. “The entire crop was Golden Delicious that we sold to a baby food company. There were no Farmers Markets. We did a roadside stand and U-Pick to help survive, but it was lean. “ In the early 80s a friend knocked on the door and suggested Farmers Markets. “More than anything else it allowed us to diversify. “ And that made all the difference in the world. “We came to the Farmers Market where people appreciated us. It was a great place where they didn’t care if the apple was pink instead of red, where they didn’t have to be waxy like they were in the supermarket.” Akasha, who’s namesake is known as great restaurant that just happens to have vegetarian food, noted that after being a vegetarian, macrobiotic, and private chef for many years that she very specifically chose to create a restaurant that wasn’t “healthy food.” That it would offer vegan food but also where you could get a pork chop. Peel noted how after doing a year in New York, he planned to open up a restaurant there but instead chose to come to Southern California after reexamining the dismal vegetables offering of an East Coast climate.

Diversification was the buzzword of the night. Both Weiser and Coleman noted its importance for their farms, in allowing them to create segmented profit throughout through the year versus one single payday from a large agri-business company (Weiser noted that sometimes it would take more than a year to get paid when they were growing for the baby food). Coleman noted how their farm had just lost their pea tendrils to mildew last week (now a tasty Amuse Bouché for their sheep), but the hit could be managed because of all their other crops. Along with diversification being a survival tactic for the farmers, it also allows the farmers to experiment with different vegetables. Coleman noted how his father started growing Persian mint because a customer brought it to them. Weiser’s father did the same thing in the 80s with the Jerusalem artichoke.

The panel did note how sometimes the customers at the market have grumbled about how some restaurants “buy all the best stuff.” “Sure we buy a lot, but we also get their early,” stated Akasha. “I’ve gotten shut out at Coleman before, that’s why I have a standing order now. Peel noted how it also leads to discovery of unknown. “People want to learn the story about things. If you can sell the waiters and get them enthused about cabbage, then they’ll get the guest excited, who’ll then go to the market and buy it, and then cook it at home for themselves.”

The next free event in the Santa Monica Farmers Market 2010 Quarterly Library Panel Series will be held Thursday August 12, 2010 from 7pm to 9pm. For more info go to www.smpl.org

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