IT’S just past 8 on a chilly spring morning and T. Nicholas Peter, chef at the Little Door restaurant, is making his rounds at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. He’s already ordered 50 pounds of onions and shallots from Thogmartin and 20 bunches of candy beets from Jaime Farms when he stops at the Suncoast stand and praises the beautiful purple artichokes.
“Nicholas, check this out,” says the farmer, Phil Green. From under the table he pulls a plastic bin full of perfect miniature cauliflower, each head no bigger than a golf ball. “This is new. We just started getting them last weekend.”
And thus is another dish born. The next week at the Little Door, that cauliflower, blanched and marinated in a mustard-tarragon vinaigrette, makes a garnish for a special of beef carpaccio.
Farmers markets have long been favorite haunts for Southern California cooks, but with a few notable exceptions the chefs mainly used them as colorful backdrops for visiting camera crews. The fruits and vegetables they actually served came from more traditional sources.
Over the last several years, that has changed. What once was a mere handful of market-shopping chefs has turned into several score. Santa Monica farmers market manager Laura Avery estimates that on any given week, at least 30 chefs are buying their restaurants’ fruits and vegetables there.
Though chefs can also be found at other markets across Southern California, particularly the ones on Saturday in Santa Monica and Sunday in Hollywood, the Wednesday Santa Monica market is the most popular -- historically it has attracted top-level farmers, and Wednesday is the perfect day to stock up for the busy weekend.
Among the market chefs are familiar names such as Sherry Yard from Spago, Suzanne Goin from Lucques and AOC, Josiah Citrin from Melisse, Bruce Marder from Capo, Scooter Kanfer from the House, Joe Miller from Joe’s, Alain Giraud from Bastide and Campanile’s Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton.
There is a trickle-down effect too: Students from local culinary schools wander the market proudly, showing off their baggy checked pants and bulky chef jackets as if they were the latest from Dolce & Gabbana.
This has resulted in changes not just for the restaurants but for the farmers as well. When you see things like stinging nettles and wild arugula flowers on a menu today, the chances are they came from the Santa Monica farmers market. The same is also true for other special ingredients, from Persian mulberries to ramps.
In return, the chefs provide the farmers not only with inspiration for new crops, but more importantly with a solid revenue stream. Chefs say they typically spend $1,200 to $1,500 a week at the market.
“We could not be doing what we’re doing today if it were not for the chefs,” says Coastal Organics’ Maryann Carpenter. “On Wednesdays, three-fourths of our sales are to restaurants. Almost our whole spring lineup of vegetables was selected to serve chefs.”
The first big hit: favas
Take fava beans, perhaps the most notable market success. It wasn’t so long ago they were largely unknown. First, a couple of farmers started growing them, then chefs caught on and built demand. Today, it seems mounds of fava beans have replaced pints of strawberries as signs of spring.
The quest for variety has even sent Flora Bella Farms’ James Birch out of his fields to harvest wild greens like miners’ lettuce, lambs’ quarters and purslane. “I don’t know if the chefs demanded them, but they sure went for them once they were here,” he says.
Sometimes hard-to-find ingredients become so sought after that chefs resort to unusual methods to secure a supply. A prime example is delicate, intensely flavored Persian mulberries. Kim and Clarence Blain at Circle C Ranch are the biggest growers of them, and pastry chefs Yard and Silverton seem to have a friendly competition for who gets the lion’s share.
Yard, with her Brooklyn accent and Betty Boop voice, can frequently be found at the Circle C stand, hanging out in the truck or even helping unload. And when Kim Blain had gall-bladder surgery, Silverton sent a big hand-wrapped box of specially prepared pastries to the hospital.
This competition for fruit draws a chuckle from farmer Birch. Of course, he sends all the mulberries from his 20-year-old tree to Goin, one of his steadiest customers.
The next big thing may be agretti, a slightly bitter Italian green. Paul Schrade, a former farm worker organizer turned market forager for Campanile, brought seeds back on his last trip to Italy. Now both Thogmartin Farms and Polito Family Farms are growing it and a couple of other farmers have planted it as well.
These new items tend to start slowly. Farmers have learned that although chefs might be passionate about an ingredient one day, by the time it has been grown and harvested they sometimes have lost interest, leaving the farmer holding the bag.
“One chef told me he’d buy all the sugarloaf chicory I could grow,” says Bill Coleman, another of the market’s most respected farmers. “It turns out all he wants is 10 heads a week. I’m growing 200. We’ve been eating a lot of sugarloaf chicory lately.”
Still, the farmers say, if it weren’t for the chefs’ business, the Wednesday market would probably be a shadow of its current self.
“There is such a glut of farmers markets these days,” says Carpenter, the unofficial den mother of the market’s chefs (not only is she one of their favorite farmers, she’s the one Avery designated to handle the few, highly sought parking passes). “Every city’s got four or five. All of that has siphoned off business from the older, established markets like Santa Monica. I think almost every farmer here would agree that if it wasn’t for the chefs, this would be a very ho-hum market, dollar-wise.”
Getting the chefs into the market took some effort. While the image of chefs shopping at a farmers market is romantic, it’s not the most efficient way to run a business. In the first place, once a restaurant has a dish on the menu, it needs a steady supply of those ingredients, and that can be a challenge for small farmers. As a purely practical matter, maneuvering hand carts stacked with crates of produce in the market’s crowded, narrow streets can be a nightmare.
To encourage the chefs, Carpenter and several other farmers agreed to take phone orders in advance so most of their produce could be neatly packed and awaiting pickup when they arrived. Avery arranged for the parking passes and allowed chefs to start shopping an hour early so they could get first shot at the ingredients they needed.
These changes have caused grumbling from some of the market’s non-chef shoppers. They resent the fact that after the pros get first crack at the more sought-after items, there’s sometimes nothing left.
“There are certain things that we only have enough of to supply chefs and not the walk-up customers, and that’s a sore subject,” says Carpenter. “Sometimes the customers get annoyed, and I don’t blame them. I just hope they understand that in order for us to survive, we count on the volume these restaurants bring in. We can’t make ends meet on a dollar here and a dollar there.”
The market has even begun to commodify, after a fashion. LA Specialty Produce now takes orders and makes regular pickups at the market for as many as 15 restaurants every week.
None of these chefs are shopping for bargains. Farmers market prices are at least as high as those from regular vendors, and unlike brokers, growers are notoriously reluctant to dicker over fruits and vegetables they’ve worked hard to grow. In fact, it ticks them off.
“There is no bargaining, not with us,” says farmer Coleman. “Our table price is what we charge. Maybe if they’re buying 100 pounds, we give them a break.”
As a result, though many chefs do claim to buy all of their produce at the market, others pick their spots. Campanile’s Peel, who with Silverton was one of the first chefs to use the market heavily, says he only buys about 40% of the restaurant’s produce there.
“We buy mainly specialty things: spring onions as opposed to commodity onions,” says Peel, who is pointed out by several farmers as the market’s canniest shopper.
“Then there are things we’ll only buy at the market. There’s a big difference between English peas. If they’re picked too late, they’re big and starchy. The only way you can tell is to be at the market and taste them.”
A social scene
Of course, there are other reasons for going to the market. Stop in early on a Wednesday morning and you’ll see chefs gathered in little knots, visiting. It’s one place they can take time out of their busy day to meet friends, if only for a brief “Hi, how’s business?” Citrin and Kazuto Matsusaka, the original chef at Chinois on Main, bring their kids.
Despite the natural tension between buyers and sellers, there is a sense of community between chefs and farmers as well. When the Colemans’ house and barn burned down last year, 10 farmers market chefs, led by the Campanile crew and the Getty’s Helene Kennan, threw a benefit dinner for them, raising $25,000.
“That was a godsend, and very humbling, I tell you,” says the normally gruff Coleman. “You never realize how many friends you have until something like that happens. It humbles me every time I think about it.”
Helping out goes both ways. Peter Schaner, a market farmer who has had a run of bad luck with pest infestations and exotic Newcastle disease in his poultry, volunteers his truck to deliver produce -- both his own and from other farmers -- to some restaurants that don’t have delivery vehicles of their own.
It is an irony of the market that most farmers can’t afford to eat at the places they sell their produce. To show his appreciation for some of his favorite farmers, Citrin, who has a reputation for being one of the market’s hardest bargainers, threw his own thank-you dinner last year, featuring them as honored guests.
So Phil McGrath finally got to taste how his beets tasted roasted and tossed with goat cheese feta and dressed with a 50-year-old sherry-extra-virgin olive oil emulsion. And Coleman and Schaner sat down for a dessert of lemon verbena parfait and kumquat beignets, a dish that had its beginnings on their farms.
“Life is long, especially in the kitchen,” says Citrin. “You have to keep finding things that make you feel like you’re improving and doing something new. With the market, it’s the whole process of watching food go from the grower to the restaurant. It keeps you in touch with a little bit of the history of it.”
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Fava bean soup
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Note: From Josiah Citron at Melisse
1 tablespoon olive oil
12 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and butterflied
5 pounds fava beans, shelled
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 slice bacon
1/2 cup sweet onion, sliced
1/3 cup thinly sliced leek, white part only
1 tablespoon chopped lemon grass
1 clove garlic, chopped
3 sprigs savory, 2 for soup, the other leaves picked for garnish
3 small Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into small dice
1 tablespoon sweet vermouth
5 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Freshly ground white pepper
1. Heat a large skillet over high heat and add the olive oil. Add the shrimp and cook until opaque, 4 minutes. Remove and set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Add the fava beans and return to a boil. Cook for 1 minute, drain and cool in ice water. Remove the beans from their skins. Set aside 12 for garnish.
3. Heat a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the vegetable oil, butter and bacon and cook for 1 minute. Add the onion, leek, lemon grass, garlic, 2 sprigs of savory and the potatoes. Cook until soft, 5 minutes, stirring often. Do not let the vegetables brown. Add the vermouth and cook a minute to burn off the alcohol. Add the stock and bring to a boil, then add the cream and bring back to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Add the fava beans and cook for several more minutes. Season with salt and white pepper.
4. Transfer to a blender and puree in batches until smooth and airy. Strain the soup through a fine mesh strainer into another pot if you are going to use immediately. If serving later, cool the soup in a stainless steel bowl over a bowl of ice. This will keep the color. Garnish each soup bowl with several shrimp, fava beans and savory leaves.
Each serving: 756 calories; 765 mg. sodium; 110 mg. cholesterol; 38 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 88 grams carbohydrates; 36 grams protein; 2 grams fiber.
Grilled asparagus and polenta
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Note: This appetizer is from Joe Miller of Joe’s Restaurant in Venice. Miller adds shelled fava beans to the sauce and prefers stinging nettle leaves, which can be found at farmers markets, to the arugula or mustard greens. If using the nettles, be sure to wear gloves when removing the leaves from the stems.
3 cups chicken stock, divided
3/4 cup instant polenta
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
18 thin spears asparagus
1/2 cup shelled English peas
1 cup coarsely chopped arugula or mustard greens
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for grilling
1. Butter an 8-inch square baking dish and set aside.
2. Bring 2 cups of stock to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. Slowly stir in the polenta, reduce the heat and continue stirring until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about 15 minutes. Stir in the butter and cheese. Spoon into the dish, spreading in an even layer, and refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes. Cut into nine squares and remove from the dish.
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Add the asparagus to the boiling water and cook until fork-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the pot with a strainer and shock in ice water to set color. Drain. Bring the same pot of water back to a boil. Add the peas and cook 2 minutes. Place in ice water then drain.
4. Place the remaining 1 cup chicken stock in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce slightly. Add the peas and arugula or greens and cook for a few more minutes. Whisk in 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Keep the sauce warm.
5. Heat a grill pan on high heat. Brush with 1 teaspoon of olive oil and, when very hot, place the polenta squares on the pan. Grill 3 minutes per side. Remove and keep warm. Brush the grill pan with an additional teaspoon of olive oil. Grill the asparagus spears.
6. To serve, place one grilled polenta square on each plate. Lay two asparagus spears crossing over the top of the polenta, then spoon the sauce around the plate.
Each serving: 166 calories; 361 mg. sodium; 19 mg. cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 2 grams fiber.
Pistachio and mint goat cheese tart
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Note: From T. Nicholas Peter at the Little Door. Peter likes to serve the tarts with a salad of cilantro and mint with garbanzo beans, tomatoes, preserved lemons and thinly sliced Persian cucumbers, which can be found at farmers markets.
1/2 cup shelled pistachios, divided
2 sheets puff pastry, thawed
Flour, for rolling
16 ounces goat cheese, room temperature
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
12 mint leaves, thinly sliced, plus 18 whole mint leaves for garnish
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the pistachios on a baking sheet and bake until lightly toasted, 7 to 8 minutes. Cool, chop and set aside.
2. Butter 6 (4-inch) tart pans. Roll out the puff pastry on a floured surface to 1/8-inch thick. Press the pastry, one tart pan at a time, gently into the bottom and into the fluted sides. Trim the top of the pastry so that it is even with the top of the pan. Prick the bottom of each tart with a fork. Chill 15 minutes while you prepare the filling.
3. Cream the goat cheese with an electric mixer until smooth, then add 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, the nutmeg, garlic, sliced mint and half of the pistachios. On slow speed, add the cream and eggs and mix until well incorporated.
4. Divide the mixture among the tarts, filling each about 2/3 full. Place 3 mint leaves on each tart, fanning out from the center. Sprinkle the remaining nuts around the leaves and sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the tarts to help prevent the mint leaves from burning. Place the tarts on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the tart pans.
Each serving: 503 calories; 346 mg. sodium; 133 mg. cholesterol; 43 grams fat; 19 grams saturated fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.