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Restaurants Embrace Farmers Markets:

The Santa Monica Farmers Market (SMFM) produces more than just produce for the area, it also stimulates the growth of relationships between chefs and farmers, chefs and other chefs, and (most importantly) chefs and consumers.

There is a large community of executive chefs, restaurateurs, and sous chefs who utilize the SMFM. Some of them plan their whole menus around the seasonal fare like Steffano De Lorenz, owner of La Botte Ristorante on Santa Monica Boulevard. The children’s jogging stroller to Lorenze transports goodies from the Arizona Street Farmers Market on Wednesdays is shaping a well-worn trail back to La Botte.

“This is the best Rosemary,” he said while inhaling the narrow leaves. Walking around with Steffano is a professional culinary field trip. There is a leafy green vegetable high in protein, Vitamin A, calcium and, foreign to most home cooks; Lambs Quarters.

“It grows three months a year and is the lamb’s favorite food” Steffano said. He purchases a mass of watercress from the Schaner Farms, for “a beautiful salad on the menu.” The salad he refers to is Insalata Di Crescione Palmito with avocado, hearts of palm, roasted pine nuts, shaved parmesan in a balsamic dressing. Steffano’s said the reasons he shops at the Arizona Street Farmers Market (touted as “Where all the Chefs Shop!”) are, “You get the best and freshest product; you can pick whatever you like; you have the luxury of picking the very best.”

Picking the very best is a sentiment echoed by many chefs in Santa Monica. “The reason it’s important for me to shop the Farmers Market is first, I want to choose the vegetables, choose the produce, because I want to find out from which Farm it tastes best today, because it changes from week to week. I get the best possible quality,” said Josiah Citrin of Melisse Restaurant on Wilshire. “Another reason, I get to meet the Farmers, I get to know them and hope for the ones that have the same passion I do about my restaurant and my food, that they have the same passion about their product”.

Evan Funke from Rustic Canyon said he drags his cooks to the market at 7:45 a.m. “To see it, smell it, touch it, and talk to the Farmers. It makes so much sense economically, environmentally, physically and the bottom line; it just tastes better.” Funke said the food in chain grocery stores may look amazing, but “that fruit has been sucked out of Mother Earth instead of nurtured from it.” Funke’s passion flourished while studying pasta in Bologna six days a week, 10 hours a day. “If you look at Europe they have been cooking and eating this way for a thousand years. Whatever’s growing is what they are eating. It’s a simple idea that we have just complicated”

Celebrated Chef Ray Garcia of FIG Restaurant adds, “I picked up an apple years ago at a Farmers Market and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a lot to pay for an apple’, but then the flavor woke me back up; this is what an apple is supposed to taste like”. He went on to reveal, “Even as a Chef, I had forgotten what certain fruits and vegetables were supposed to taste like, sometimes a Red Delicious, isn’t so delicious”

If the old adage “The First Seasoning is in the Soil” is true, it makes sense that these Chefs take a special interest in the Farms they patronize. Evan Funke, notes where the vegetables are grown gives them characteristics throughout the year. He uses Flora Bella Farms as an example because the farm gets runs off water from the mountains, so the snow water melts through the farm’s crops and that gives an amazing materiality to the farm’s vegetables. He also highlights Windrose Farms whose land has an incredible alkaline quality to the water, which gives the vegetables a very sweet accent.

“A lot of people think big chain restaurants can’t do this, but we buy from half a dozen vendors in the Santa Monica Farmers Market” says Greg Mezey, Executive Chef at Houston’s Restaurant on Wilshire. “It’s in our back yard,” he declares. Greg and his sous chef hit the pavement early Wednesday mornings and some Saturdays. “But Wednesdays are by far our biggest shopping days.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship for the farmers and restaurants. Daisy Tamai, sales rep for Life’s a Choke declares, “I love my restaurants so much I bake for them.” Beside her sit two containers of honey and oatmeal raisin cookies.

Ask any farmer if they have an affiliation with a restaurant in town and watch their faces light up. “We love them! We love growing unusual and high quality products and they [the chefs] make it fun for us to do so” said Barbara of Windrose Farm. She adds, “We have watched some of the younger (chefs) go on to have their own restaurants and enlarge the family; some feel like family.”

SMFM affords another unique quality, allowing chef’s in the community to interact and develop a mutual admiration. If you spend any time talking with Josiah Citrin from Melisse at the SMFM, be prepared for friendly interruptions from fellow chefs, clientele, and paparazzi.

“We are all very busy, but yes, sometimes we stop and we talk about business; what we do, what we don’t do,” said, Steffano of La Botte.

This seasonal way of cooking takes a commitment from the diner as well. Chef Ray Garcia explains, “You put so much into these dishes and to be as true as possible with the seasons, you have to let some favorite dishes go.” In this day of instant access, can dining guests accept their favorite dish is not on this week’s menu? Chef Ray elaborates, “They understand if it’s for the right reason. The challenge is on me upping the bar because if I am going to steer you away from the cauliflower you loved last time, I have to have broccoli that tastes that much better.”

Chefs and farmers alike have noticed an increase in consumer awareness. “The last two years working at this restaurant (Rustic Canyon) and seeing every farmers market in Los Angeles steadily increase, at least 50 percent. It’s just an awareness that people are starting to believe this stuff actually works. It’s not even that much more expensive,” said Funke. Windrose’s Barbara Spencer explains, “We have an ever increasing customer base that looks forward to seeing what is on our table and what surprises we might bring.”

Chefs all over Santa Monica have formed relationships with Farmers in California and you might see a few of them on Wednesdays at the SMFM, by all means shake your bag of produce at them and inquire, “What do I do with this?” Better yet, grab family and some friends in the neighborhood for a dining experience in Santa Monica with restaurants that go the extra mile to bring, the best of the best. For an exquisite dish that tastes close to home, ask the restaurant you love what they are buying from SMFM.

Misty McAfee

Special to the Mirrorstaff@smmirror.com

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