Farmer's Kitchen serves up farmers market produce

To the uninitiated, the Farmer's Kitchen in Hollywood may seem like just a welcome spot to buy breakfast or lunch, or a bottle of vinegar or a bag of fresh potato chips in a neighborhood with plenty of new housing construction and not enough cafes.

But this little spot, near the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street at the edge of the sprawling Sunday farmers market, means to help change the world, if just a little. Opened May 17 by the nonprofit organization that runs the market, the Farmer's Kitchen is intended to be one solution to the problems of poverty and unemployment, as well as an effort to connect small farms and urban life.

The Farmer’s Kitchen will use growers' produce and foster businesses for them to market it, offer classes in nutrition and cooking and provide training to low-income people to work in the food industry, says Pompea Smith, chief executive of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, known as SEE-LA.

SEE-LA also runs the Hollywood Farmers' Market, as well as five markets in low-income neighborhoods. And just as shoppers can't always predict what they'll find at the markets, the cafe too will operate from what the farmers harvest that week.

In summer, there might be gazpacho and jars of marinara sauce for sale. Farmer Alex Weiser has been experimenting in the kitchen making potato chips, a popular item in the markets of Madrid.

Greens and eggs

On the cafe's first day, chef Gill Boyd served $8 breakfast plates that included eggs, grilled polenta, fruit compote and sautéed greens to a small but steady stream of customers.

With chairs bought late the previous day, the shelves not quite full of farm products and the cash register not yet installed, the atmosphere was as casual as it gets. When a customer spilled orange juice, Smith's computer expert was the one who cleaned up.

Smith, wearing a purple Hollywood Farmers' Market T-shirt, greeted many guests to explain the cafe's aims.

The Farmer's Kitchen, she said, will give the 18-year-old Hollywood market an everyday presence -- one more way that SEE-LA, a nonprofit community development corporation, is capitalizing on the popularity of farmers markets to get fresh, healthful food into underserved communities while supporting farmers.

At closing time for the market, farmers can bring unsold produce to the kitchen, located in the Sunset and Vine development, to make less perishable products, such as sauces or jams. And if a restaurant chef needs, say, a few gallons of lime juice, the kitchen might be able to provide that too.

"What's exciting about this project is that everyone wants to be a part of it," Smith said one sunny morning as she walked through the kitchen.

Boyd, an instructor at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, has also done cooking demonstrations at SEE-LA farmers markets and says he strongly supports the Farmer's Kitchen mission.

For now, the cafe is open Sundays for breakfast and lunch, and Tuesdays through Fridays for lunch. On a recent Thursday, the menu included beef borscht; a salad of artichokes, cucumber, fennel and greens topped with wild salmon; and a salad made with apricots and several other stone fruits. Nothing was priced at more than $7.

Smith says the operation will settle in over time, finding its niche. Her plan is that once the lunch business finishes for the day, farmers will be able to use the kitchen. And at night, there will be classes.

In early May, the Farmer's Kitchen opened its doors for a party, serving breakfast to 300 farmers and vendors from the Hollywood market. That test run was a success -- even if the volunteer hosts felt a bit overworked by such tasks as serving 300 glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

With floor-to-ceiling windows and sunny yellow tile, the 1,500-square-foot cafe has to be efficient. In addition to a few tables, there is space for composting and shelves for farmers' products. Smith says she plans to add photos and descriptions of the farms where the products came from to the shelves.

Cafe's beginnings

Smith had the idea for the kitchen seven years ago and began trying to raise the money to open it. Along the way, SEE-LA has had to contend with the building changing hands twice, wiring and ventilation challenges, and rising costs. It held several fundraisers and sought grant money, securing free rent for four years. Smith says she hopes to be self-sustaining in a year or so. Among the funders are the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles and the La Kretz Family Foundation.

"When the key was turned over to me, my goodness. It's like having a baby. Now what am I going to do?" says Smith, who, nevertheless, is fairly bursting with ideas. Perhaps the kitchen will recruit low-income people to take part in food-handling classes that could lead to restaurant jobs.

She is considering internship programs. And perhaps a relationship with food technology students at Cal Poly Pomona for help with processing.

"I think it's a great idea," says Johanna Finley of Finley Farms in Santa Ynez. She and her husband farm 30 acres of fruits and vegetables, and to get their products sold, they rely on farmers markets, a farm stand, a Community Supported Agriculture program and some restaurant and wholesale customers.

"I am all for supporting any restaurant that supports small farms."