Natural Wonders

Four chefs — and one agricultural commissioner — on why they go green

Massimo Navaretta, Onotria
Onotria chef and owner Massimo Navaretta appreciates farmers a bit more than your average chef—he was raised on a farm in Calabria, Italy's southernmost province. Besides the fact that supporting local growers is good for the economy, Navaretta points out that fruit and produce has the best flavor when it's ripened on the vine and grown by "people who take a little more care in what they are eating"—care and flavor that he successfully highlights in his dishes.

Navaretta also takes pride in the garden located on the restaurant's premises, where he grows leafy greens and other produce exclusively for his menu. Without a doubt, being Italian influenced his thinking. "All the Italians had gardens," he recalls. Basil is snipped off as you need it, and the tomatoes are left to ripen on the vine until the marinara is just about to be prepared.

For his restaurant, Navaretta builds relationships with suppliers and the folks he meets at the farmers markets he frequents. But you'll often find him with his two kids, ages 11 and 9, at the OC Fairgrounds and the Saturday farmers market across from UC Irvine. Introducing his kids to the people who grow the food they eat gives them an appreciation they wouldn't get otherwise, he says.

In the coming weeks, look forward to a veritable summer-veggie fest to grace his menu: summer string beans he'll saute simply with garlic and olive oil, and of course, tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes. He'll fire-roast them—expect bliss.

Tanya Fuqua, Avanti Café
Tanya Fuqua is half of the duo that started Avanti Cafe, an Orange County pioneer of sorts in the Natural Foods Movement. Fuqua used to work at Whole Foods Market, where she racked up more than a decade of experience in the natural foods industry. She honed her culinary chops at the California School of Culinary Arts, graduating at the top of her class. But Fuqua never forgot the virtues of organic food. Two years ago, she and partner Mark Cleveland opened Avanti with one mission: to feature locally grown organic produce. The reason is simple, she says: "It's a win-win for everybody.

"Organic is better for bodies and better for farm workers," she continues. The bulk of the produce that ends up on Fuqua's plates is grown and picked from South Coast Farms, a certified organic producer in San Juan Capistrano. From them, she looks forward to a summer full of cucumbers, peppers, stone fruits, herbs, parsley and "lots of dill." But, of course, summer is tomato time. And when they arrive, she's planning to turn them into desserts—tomato granitas and sorbets are just some of the refreshing treats you can expect.

Britta Pulliam, Britta's Café
Britta Pulliam has used organic produce for the past 20 years but mentioned it to few customers during most of that time. "People didn't get it," she recalls. Now that it's hip, she's happy to spread the word. "It's just better for you," Pulliam says.

You can tell the difference between what's organically grown and what's not, Pulliam says: "There's a trueness to the taste of the fruit or vegetable." The pesticides used on the commercially grown stuff puts her off, which is why Pulliam uses predatory bugs to control pests in her own garden. (An unexpected side effect to this method of pest control: more birds.)

Although Pulliam admits that using organics costs more and cuts into her profit margins, she believes it is well worth the effort. A trip to Alice Waters' Chez Panisse (where California Cuisine began) in Berkeley solidified her commitment to organic food. There, Pulliam marveled at how organically sourced, simple ingredients coalesced to become one of the best meals she's ever had. Pulliam fondly remembers how the tastes "lasted longer than the moment."

In her own kitchen, Pulliam finds that she doesn't have to work so hard when using good organic products. Chickens used at Britta's are free-range from Shelton's; the produce is certified organic from Willey Farms. But she patronizes the weekly UCI farmers market as well. At her café, look forward to her goat-cheese-and-roasted-tomato tart and roasted-tomato confit with basil, both of which will make for long-lasting memories of their own.

Diego Velasco, Memphis
To Diego Velasco, executive chef of Memphis, there's no question: organic, seasonal produce grown by local farmers is far superior to its commercial cousins. Fruits and veggies can be flown in from Chile or other parts of the world for year-round availability, but as with wine grapes, he can tell the difference immediately: It's all about "the elements of the earth, the soil and climate." The seasonal, locally grown organics just taste richer, brighter and fresher, he says.

On his Wednesday trips to the Tustin and Santa Ana Farmers Markets, Velasco sees another plus to organics: more exotic varietals. Take beets: One kind, called the candy-striped beet, has alternating rings of red and white when sliced open; another, named "baby golds," is strikingly yellowish orange in color. And have you ever heard of a watermelon radish?

Velasco has been cooking organically sourced products for Memphis since 2003. But his "eyes, ears and taste buds" belong to Penjoyan Produce, a Costa Mesa-based produce wholesaler who trolls the local farmers markets to find the best of what's in season for Velasco and crew.

Now that the weather is starting to warm up, Velasco looks forward to serving great seafood. In particular, there's the Mano de Leon scallop—a prized, seasonal, giant deep-water mollusk—which he'll pair with organically grown summer corn made into a spicy, Cajun-inspired dish called macque shoux. And if he has some surplus blackberries from his own home garden, Velasco will bring them in to the restaurant to make some impromptu blackberry margaritas for a few lucky Memphis patrons. For more info on Penjoyan Produce, call (949) 646-5718, or visit www.growersranch.com/penjoyanproduce.htm.

Rick Le Feuvre, Orange County Agricultural Commissioner
A 30-year veteran and graduate of Cal Poly's agricultural program, Rick Le Feuvre is the man responsible for "enforcing state-mandated agricultural and pesticide regulations" and "certifying commercial weighing and measuring devices in the county."

If this sounds like a mundane task, think again: His job is to make sure you get exactly what you pay for at the market. And those pesky fruit flies? Yep. It's his job to protect our farmers from them. Although the federal government mandates the registration of organic growers, it's his duty to do county investigations on an as-needed basis. His role in this regard is tiny (corresponding to a small allotted budget), he says. But we still think it's an important one.

So the next time you bite into that juicy summer peach, you owe a bit of thanks to Mr. Le Feuvre.

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