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Monday, September 20, 2021

Farm-to-fork in the Capay Valley

JEREMY DANG / AGGIE

Farmers and chefs form symbiotic relationship, increasing impact of northern California farms and cuisine

46 years ago, a young woman with a passion for food opened a small establishment in Berkeley, California. Today we know her as Alice Waters, a world-renowned chef.

Waters’s flagship eatery, Chez Panisse, is synonymous with the farm-to-fork movement she helped create. While much of the credit for the start of this movement goes to Waters, little could have been accomplished without the produce provided by local farms.

Nowadays, Yolo County and its Capay Valley are home to some of the most prominent players in the farm-to-table business.

Riverdog Farm, located in nearby Guinda, has been supplying produce to numerous farm-to-fork establishments, including Bay Area restaurants Nopa, Penrose, Pizzaiolo, Zuni Cafe and Chez Panisse, since it was founded in 1990 by Trini Campbell and Tim Mueller. Their produce also finds its way to the prominent Sacramento restaurants Waterboy and The Kitchen.

When it comes to the Capay Valley, Campbell can’t help but gush about its environment.

“Our climate, where we are in Yolo County, it’s really hot in the summer, and it infuses things with sweetness,” Campbell said. “Then in the winter we have a lot of frost, so the broccoli and carrots and kale and chard, all that winter hearty stuff, actually tastes better once it has frost on it.”

Laurence Jossel, the head chef and founder of the San Francisco restaurants Nopa and Nopalito, shares Campbell’s sentiments.

“I’ve cooked in many other places, many other countries, many other states,” Jossel said. “In my opinion — and I’ve stated it many times — we are cooking in the best place to cook in the world.”

With the mutual respect that both these chefs and farmers have for their environment, the only thing left to do is streamline restaurant and consumer access to the fresh produce. While the majority of the public might assume that farms deliver directly to neighboring food and drink establishments, in reality, the process is much different. Although farms and restaurants have very close, long-tenured relationships, the majority of produce deliveries are achieved via the less intimate, yet more communal vessel of farmers markets.

Full Belly Farm, an even older Capay Valley establishment founded in 1985, is based in Guinda, just down the road from Riverdog Farm. Judith Redmond, a UC Davis alumna and one of the farm’s owners, knows the farmers market process very well.

“Many chefs come to the markets to pick up from multiple farms,” Redmond said. “They’re at the market. They’re seeing the produce. They’re thinking about how they’re going to cook it and what they’re going to do with it.”

For Jossel, a chef at Nopa for over 12 years, the farmers markets are key to his creative process.

“It’s a great place to talk to another chef about a recipe,” Jossel said. “We’re all shopping for the same stuff, but then we get to go back and [prepare] it in different ways.”

In addition to drawing inspiration from their fellow chefs, many cooks also look to farmers for well-received advice about their products.

“Just by making suggestions,” Campbell said. “‘Oh these Tokyo turnips! It’s the first week of the harvest. You got to try one of these: they’re so good raw, and you can grate it on a salad or you can just barely sauté it, and it’s just delicious — it tastes like a scallop.’”

At Nopa, Jossel has the luxury of a menu that changes daily based on what’s the best produce at the farmers markets that day. Jossel personally picks up all of the produce for him and his employees, allowing him to taste and touch the products prior to writing the menu.

“Today I picked up really good green beans from a farm called Tomatero,” Jossel said. “That influenced tonight’s menu; they will be on that menu, as are their tomatoes and some beautiful peppers that I found. Our style is ‘If it’s not in the market, we’re not cooking it.’”

This loyalty from big-time restaurants has cultivated a caring culture among farmers and chefs. Jossel is the first to admit that he feels a loyal obligation to the farmers he interacts with.

“When I started Nopa 12 years ago, there weren’t a ton of chefs at the market, and now there are so many. We are a big group of buyers at these markets,” Jossel said. “According to the market managers, we need to show up; we need to help these farmers out.”

Campbell feels similarly about the communal caring: she considers the farmers markets to be the highlight of her work.

“I like going to the farmers markets the most, every Saturday,” Campbell said. “The customers — I’ve come to know them — I’ve basically seen their children grow up on our food. I see them every week. I develop friendships, and it’s a way to take a break from the farm.”

This strengthened relationship between farmer and chef demonstrates the impact of the farm-to-fork movement. By creating a joint community, both sides have grown exponentially. While this is a business, it’s clear that farmer and chef alike both rely upon and care about one another.

 

Written By: Rowan O’Connell-Gates — arts@theaggie.org

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