Pick a Pepper

North Bay restaurateurs get their hands dirty with homegrown produce


The welcoming of homegrown produce into restaurant kitchens is fast becoming the preferred method of restaurateurs all over the state, as chefs opt out of cheaper, often questionable produce for fresh, guilt-free and flavorsome ingredients. And many are taking matters into their own hands by planting their own restaurant gardens.

“When you do have to go the farmers market, you see all of this great Swiss chard, and beautiful peaches and strawberries,” says executive chef David Kinch of the Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos. “But then you’ll notice that all the chefs are all buying the same Swiss chard and peaches and strawberries! One of the great things about having your own garden is that it causes a separation, and it makes what you do unique.”

Ubuntu, a restaurant and combined yoga studio in Napa, places a heavy emphasis on using organically farmed local produce to support its decidedly green outlook. A large part of the ingredients used in Ubuntu’s “garden fresh menu” is grown on its own land, designed by wine country favorite Jeff Dawson, who created gardens for both the Fetzer and Kendall-Jackson wineries.

At Ubuntu, where employees are encouraged to walk or ride to work if possible and all the furnishings are made from recycled wood, the staff are not only mindful of the energy they expend, but encourage a sustainable lifestyle through the food they serve.

“Because our farm is run biodynamically, we’re putting extra care into the produce,” says Ubuntu executive chef Jeremy Fox. “Plus, we can pick things as we like them, and it really puts the control back in our hands.”

It helps to have good friends with larger patches of dirt. Manresa’s exclusive partnership with Cynthia Sandberg’s Love Apple Farm in Ben Lomond began serendipitously. Kinch, who had always bought tomatoes from Sandberg, mentioned he was looking for land to farm. Sandberg wanted to begin to expand her land into a biodynamic farm, and the rest, as they say, is homegrown history.

“Our relationship is very unique, because everything that grows is solely for the restaurant,” Kinch says. “That way, she can concentrate on what she does best, rather than worry about selling certain ingredients or growing certain crops.”

It also ensures the best produce. For the most part, Manresa’s entire menu is supported by Love Apple Farm’s harvest, but sometimes, depending on weather or unforeseen consequences, the restaurant is forced to supplement with ingredients from farmers markets or commercial growers. But for about six to nine months of the year, every component of every dish is grown by Sandberg and the gardening staff.

And that’s another thing. Gardening staffs, employees whose sole purpose is tending to the farms and small restaurant gardens, are fast becoming commonplace for high-end establishments, which makes the overwhelming task of tending acres of farmland a joint effort.

“We know exactly where everything is coming from,” Fox says. “We know there are no pesticides, and the possibility of things like salmonella in the tomatoes is completely gone.”

Indeed, now that tomatoes have been causing concern at the market,  a brilliantly homegrown Roma can set the tone for a five-star meal, Kinch says. “The appeal of having a garden lies in the quality of the ingredients first and foremost,” he says. “It’s a great indicator of seasonality, it adds a wonderful sense of place and it really does bring out the personality of your restaurant and help create that right feeling.”

That feeling is sprouting. Northern California’s ideal climate and fertile soil has sparked somewhat of a gardening revolution as restaurants up and down the coast—like the French Laundry in Yountville, Sebastopol’s French Garden and the Station House Cafe in Pt. Reyes Station—have all made a commitment to serving the freshest produce from their own backyards.

“I think a lot of people are going to try it because it is a trend, but it really is an important new part of the food industry,” Kinch says. “An integrated working farm or garden is a rarity—the elements all play into it and make it difficult—but if people could find the time and money to do it long-term, they’d find it’s very rewarding.”

Fox agrees, adding that no matter the obstacle, personally growing the ingredients is undoubtedly worth it.

“The only problem is it’s not a money-making venture,” he says of deciding to go homegrown. “It’s more a personal choice. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ll plant something and wait for a few months, and it just doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. That’s just the way it goes.”

Farm-fresh produce is reappearing in big cities like Chicago and New York as well, with chefs traveling to farms just outside the city for produce or simply housing a rooftop garden or two. While it seems innovative and groundbreaking, personally growing produce goes way back to Delmonico’s, a Manhattan eatery that famously harvested its ingredients from a farm in Brooklyn some 100 years ago. What’s new this time around is the emphasis on the environmental impact of food. The focus on biodynamic farming and sustainable practices has changed the face of gardening itself, and although many restaurateurs simply love the quality of organic produce, the effort to maintain a greener garden is behind the movement.

Bay Area diners are sensing a shift as well, and judging by the success of homegrown restaurants, they seem to love every bite.

“Since day one people have noticed,” Kinch says. “Even when they had no idea we were growing our own stuff, they knew something was going on.”

Pay Dirt

Restaurants that grow their own

Dempsey’s Restaurant & Brewery Owners Peter and Bernadette Burrell also manage Red Rooster Ranch, an organic farm in West Petaluma. Ranch produce appears on the menu year-round, and they often harvest ingredients in the mornings and serve them the same evening. The adjoining brewery is run as biodynamically as possible, so there’s a sustainable something for the whole family. Dempsey’s, in the Golden Eagle Shopping Center, 50 E. Washington St., Petaluma. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.765.9694.

The French Garden Restaurant & Brasserie Owners Dan Smith and Joan Marler provide executive chef Didier Gerbi with all the freshest, best produce from their 30 acres of organic farmland located just west of Sebastopol. The French Garden takes green dining above and beyond, hosting films, dinner concerts, poetry readings and dance to complement the just-picked entrées. 8050 Bodega Ave., Sebastopol. Open for dinner, Wednesday&–Sunday; brunch, Sunday. 707.824.2030.

Mustard’s Grill This upscale grill house tucked in between vineyards and mustard fields plays home to a small garden where owner Cindy Pawlcyn draws inspiration for her dishes. Barbecue gets all gussied up as Pawlcyn and her team treat diners to locally farmed culinary dishes that range from the familiar to the bizarre. 7399 St. Helena Hwy., Yountville. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.944.2424.

Station House Cafe This West Marin hideaway is treasured by locals and tourists alike for its strong service and sustainable take on American cuisine. Produce is grown onsite and procured through a partnership with Marin Organic. Chef Wayne Pratt not only has a knack for creating tasty and healthy dishes, he surfs in his spare time. 11180 State Route 1, Pt. Reyes Station. Open daily. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Friday&–Monday; lunch and dinner, Tuesday&–Thursday. 415.663.1515.

Ubuntu In this self-described “vegetable restaurant,” customers can calm the soul through the accompanying yoga studios or the mouth-watering organically farmed dishes—or both! Green living is taken to a new level at this Napa Valley oasis, making a brighter outlook, as well as a satisfied stomach, a guarantee.

1140 Main St., Napa. Open for dinner, Monday&–Friday; lunch and dinner, Saturday&–Sunday. 707.251.5656.

Zazu Perhaps the sweetest little roadhouse there ever was, Zazu serves up Italian-infused Americana dishes with a local kick: it grows its own herbs and diverse produce in planter boxes behind the restaurant. Zazu employs a gardener to care for its produce, and crops include pears, pomegranates, squash and numerous lettuce varieties, to name a few. 3535 Guerneville Road, Santa Rosa. Open for dinner, Wednesday&–Sunday. 707.523.4814.

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