The sun moves over the Saturday Pico farmers market in Santa Monica, filtering through the canopy protecting the delicate herbs and baby lettuces at the Kenter Canyon Farms stall. Bunches of chocolate mint, flowering thyme and cilantro, their scents infusing the air, buttress wicker baskets brimming with tatsoi, baby arugula and mesclun. Owner Andrea Crawford sips coffee while her 26-year-old son, Nathan, bags a head of gorgeous magenta Treviso radicchio and gives a customer his favorite recipe for it, grilled with tagliatelle.
Unless you’re among the families and chefs who routinely shop here, or at the three other Los Angeles markets where Kenter sells its produce, you might not know the history behind the wild arugula and frisee you’re buying. And why would you? The stall is bucolic and unpretentious; Crawford is friendly but reticent. There are no signs on display to indicate the role this greenery has played in the story of California cuisine. Nothing to tell you that the salad of market lettuces we take as a given on the menu these days, an edible bouquet that tastes as good as it looks, effectively began in Crawford’s garden.
Or, to be more accurate, Alice Waters’ garden. Twenty-six years ago, Crawford began growing lettuces and herbs for Chez Panisse, literally in Waters’ backyard. She would have stayed in Berkeley were it not for a call from an equally famous restaurateur -- Wolfgang Puck.
“No one was growing mesclun then in Los Angeles,” remembers Puck, who in 1985 was in the process of closing his renowned restaurant Ma Maison. “There were no restaurants serving it either. Now we take it for granted, but back then you couldn’t get fresh basil, tarragon; there was nothing.” Puck asked Crawford to come to Los Angeles to supply his new restaurant, Spago. “I gave her the money to plant it,” he said of Crawford’s first L.A. garden.
Crawford and then-husband Dennis Peitso came to L.A. to give it a try. “We were opting in,” Crawford says about going into business. Neither Crawford nor Peitso started out as farmers: Peitso had studied Chinese history; Crawford studied landscape painting. In fact Crawford started growing lettuce not to sell it or even to eat it, but to paint it. And she had to borrow a garden because she didn’t have one of her one: Crawford and Peitso lived on a boat, a 50-foot gaff-rigged schooner that they moored in Berkeley Marina.
A fresh start
Once in L.A. -- their boat moored in Marina del Rey -- Crawford and Peitso planted a new garden, this time in the Encino backyard of Larry Silverton, whose daughter Nancy was then Spago’s pastry chef. “Larry gave me his backyard,” Crawford said. “And he talked me out of leaving.” (These days Nancy Silverton gets her arugula delivered to Mozza by wholesalers -- instead of from her father’s backyard.)
Eventually Crawford and Peitso leased land in Tarzana and Agoura Hills. Kenter Canyon is named not for the well-known canyon north of Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood, but for the power line that runs through the Tarzana property: the DWP Kenter Canyon power line.
After Crawford and Peitso divorced in 1988, they split the business. Peitso, who renamed his share Maggie’s Farm, still farms in Agoura Hills and Tarzana and continues to be a major presence in Los Angeles farmers markets and restaurants. It was an amicable divorce. “Charming woman!” Peitso recently said of his former wife over a basket of baby chard at his stall, a fixture on 2nd Street just south of Arizona Avenue at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market.
Crawford remarried and, with her second husband and business partner Robert Dedlow, moved the business north, buying land in Ventura County. There, in the shadow of the Santa Paula Ridge of the Transverse mountain range, on 65 acres in Santa Paula, they grow the same greens that Crawford has been growing since she painted her first bouquet of arugula more than 25 years ago. “We haven’t reinvented ourselves at all,” she said.
Two weeks ago Crawford was in the middle of spring planting. Rows of baby red lettuces, cilantro, chervil and opal basil grew in tidy lines. Crawford said she sometimes sees condors; she pointed out overgrown land adjacent to the farm, now a preserve with a redwing blackbird aviary. As she drove down the road next to her fields, the scent of orange blossoms from a grove of Valencia orange trees filled the truck with intense perfume. Rows of sage, calendula flowers, soft-stemmed rosemary (“the bakers love it for rosemary bread”) and flowering thyme undulated in the breeze. And when the wind shifted, a heady wave of mint blew through the open window. “Thanks to mojitos, mint is very popular,” she said, turning the corner.
“These days everyone is growing what we grow,” she continued, “it’s not unique any more.” Still, her baby arugula, which you can buy in bags at Bristol Farms or Vicente Foods, is superlative -- the dark green leaves, shaped like perfect tiny oak leaves, have terrific flavor, never overly spicy or bitter.
The ‘V’ factor
If there’s a secret to growing it, Crawford’s not talking; she claims that nothing about what they do is “particularly novel,” and attributes the quality of her greens to freshness. “We follow standard cultivating procedures,” she said. “It’s the fresh factor that people notice; we send product out every day. Vitality is a pretty subtle thing.”
Then Crawford had another thought: “Perhaps we can chalk it up to ‘terroir.’ Maybe we need an appellation.” Santa Paula, she pointed out, is an alluvial plain. “That’s what you want when you’re farming.”
Kenter also grows wild arugula, which isn’t technically wild, but an heirloom. It has a spicier bite, a wilder flavor than regular arugula.
Crawford’s herbs and baby lettuces have a short span between planting and market: “When you’re in the baby lettuce business,” she says, “everything goes pretty quickly.”
Not so of her Treviso radicchio, which takes a few months to grow. “Like all the chicories, Treviso is a winter crop, so timing is crucial to success,” Crawford says. “Seed in the fall, harvest in late spring.” Many people think growing radicchio is difficult, but Crawford says it’s mostly about the time it takes. “If people have trouble with it, it’s because it’s in the ground so long that something happens to it. If there’s a lot of rain it can rot, something eats it, weather comes in.”
Over the years, Kenter may not have changed what it grows, but it has changed the way it markets its produce. It’s been a long time since Crawford walked out to the garden with a basket in the morning, picked her mesclun and carried it straight to Spago’s kitchen.
Though Kenter has stalls at four weekend farmers markets (Calabasas, Pico, Beverly Hills and Hollywood) year-round, these days they sell primarily to wholesalers, who in turn sell to restaurants and to Bristol Farms, Vicente Foods and other supermarkets, where you can find bags of Kenter’s baby arugula, along with mesclun, baby spinach and clamshell boxes of herbs. Crawford says they used to go to more farmers markets, but “it’s very expensive for us to do them.”
A new generation
Though less than 10% of what Kenter grows goes to farmers markets, Crawford considers them emblematic of why she started gardening and farming in the first place. “It’s the most direct link for getting the produce to the table,” she says, “which is what it’s all about.”
And chefs still love Crawford’s greens -- not just long-timers like Nancy Silverton, but the next generation too, such as Jason Travi at the just-opened Fraiche in Culver City -- he plans to feature Kenter herbs in a farro salad with basil, mint, parsley, marjoram, peppers and English peas. Or Amy Sweeney of Ammo, who uses Crawford’s wild arugula in a salad with shaved fennel and baby artichokes. Or D.J. Olsen of Lou, the Vine Street wine bar; he cuts Kenter Canyon Treviso radicchio into chiffonnade and stirs it into a slow-cooked polenta with fennel and herbs, grilling more radicchio to place on top.
And to think that history, not just the personal history of one young art student, but maybe even for a city full of salad lovers -- changed when Wolfgang Puck ate a mesclun salad at Chez Panisse.