Outside the old Venice jail, toddlers in tie-dyed shirts lick avocado-vanilla popsicles and graying couples aim their Leica cameras at a small-scale organic garden. Inside, wines are dispensed from behind the mahogany reception desk while curious cooks page through dog-eared recipes at a cookbook swap.
The inaugural Food Rendezvous brimmed with comestible energy, an assemblage of L.A.'s food artisans, gardeners, chefs and nonprofit organizations. The event sprang from the minds of Laurie Dill and Dominique Leveuf, two former San Franciscans who were inspired by the underground markets there. The pair had spent more than six months planning last month's first Food Rendezvous, a populist platform designed to unite L.A.'s vast, sometimes fractured food community.
"The idea is not just to bring in new food producers and artisans that are making things from scratch, but it's also to reconnect with the centrality of doing things from scratch," Leveuf says. "It's about sparking a conversation."
That dialogue was originally meant to be in the mold of the S.F. Underground Market, a monthly venue for those unable to afford commercial kitchens. The semi-private pop-up (participants must first sign up to be members) has built a congregation of burgeoning producers who sell and sample foods made in their homes. Similar, if sometimes short-lived, gatherings have also sprouted up in New York and elsewhere.
But bringing the Bay Area to Los Angeles proved difficult.
"We learned early on that L.A. is more strict about enforcing health codes. The concept only works in San Francisco because officials turn their heads," Dill explains.
Here, longevity meant legality. So for the Food Rendezvous to plant what Dill and Leveuf hope will be deep roots, its vendors must use kitchens approved by the health department. The duo acknowledges that was a wrinkle in the plans. Still, it hasn't altered their holistic approach, one emphasizing locality and seasonality from the soil to the kitchen and eventually to the plate.
The next Food Rendezvous is at the Abbot Kinney Festival, Millwood Avenue between Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Electric Avenue, Venice. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday. Free. For more information and a list of participating artisans, visit abbotkinney.org or www.thefoodrendezvous.com.
Dill is a master gardener as well as a board member of the Garden School Foundation, a local nonprofit that advocates garden-based education in public schools. Leveuf is a Normandy native raised in a 17th century farmhouse surrounded by northern France's agrarian boscage. Along with her husband, Greg Steltenpohl, a founder of juice-giant Odwalla, Leveuf launched organic beverage-maker Adina.
For Dill and Leveuf, the Food Rendezvous is more than just a market — with do-it-yourself cooking and gardening demos, it's also an opportunity for education.
"Breaking the fear barrier or inhibition that people have is the first step," Leveuf says. "If someone's mother didn't cook for years because the family relied on processed foods too much, a lot of knowledge is lost. Once they get back to doing it themselves, they really enjoy it. And from there the next step is learning, education."
"When people start talking about and learning where their food comes from, they learn it tastes different. It becomes something intuitive," Dill adds.
That from-scratch passion was palpable among the two dozen or so artisans at last month's Food Rendezvous.
Mark Stambler had been baking bread for more than 20 years when he discovered "The Bread Builders," a book on constructing and using wood-fired ovens. Inspired by author Alan Scott's dedication to tradition, Stambler built his own brick oven and even grinds his own flour for his rustic pain au levain. At the Food Rendezvous, fresh loaves were stacked for sale, samples smeared with Community Services Unlimited's peach-nectarine jam.
Equally devoted is Cognoscenti Coffee's Yeekai Lim, an architect who became so enamored with coffee culture that he fashioned himself into a barista. Lim poured smooth, rich cups brewed from beans roasted by San Francisco's Four Barrel Coffee.
Siobhan Tolochko had long worked in the arts, but after her children were grown she decided to pursue the sweet life. Raised by three generations of bakers, Tolochko created Oh My! Bakery to carry on that legacy of quality handmade desserts: buttery chess pies, fluffernutter cupcakes and vegan nectarine pies with black pepper crusts.
Piecing together a network of spirited producers, Dill and Leveuf say, was a joy.
"When you're talking food," Dill says, smiling, "you can hear when someone is truly passionate about it."
The Food Rendezvous will converge next at Sunday's Abbot Kinney Festival in Venice. There will be local artisan foods, nonprofit organizations working on urban food issues, a demonstration garden planted by children, speakers, cooking demos and more. In the future, Dill and Leveuf intend to expand the Food Rendezvous to incorporate foraged-food dinners and meals featuring hands-on cooking lessons. Some might be held in parking lots, others in private homes.
For now, the Food Rendezvous remains a monthly venture at the forefront of a movement that has a chance to capture Angelenos' appetites as completely as our food trucks have done. In October, Artisanal L.A., a like-minded showcase organized by the team behind the L.A. Street Food Fest, will also debut.
Perhaps more than anything, Dill and Leveuf want the Food Rendezvous to be a launching pad, an incubator for emerging producers and those wondering how to do it themselves.
"Once people become interested in local and seasonal products, they start looking for the right ingredients," Leveuf says. "They start exchanging recipes, reading about food, meeting other people, having potluck dinners together. All that is already there, it's happening. We're just a stage for it."