It's 8 a.m. on an overcast Wednesday morning , and Chef Adam Navidi has just pulled up to the entrance gate of Future Foods Farms in Brea, the largest for-profit aquaponic operation in the county. Lazy oil jacks bob up and down in the distance; a herd of goats gnaws on shrubs of Russian thistle that pepper the landscape while the roosters sound off their morning calls. The only item that clearly distinguishes the property is a dusty, worn American flag that hangs proudly from the fence.
Navidi signals toward me to hop in his tan Chevy truck. A black chef coat hangs off to the side swaying back and forth as we drive down the winding dirt path towards his tilapia hatchery.
As we enter the hatchery, the vibration of aquarium pumps hums in the background while a group of juvenile tilapia breaches the surface of an open air tank in hunger. "First thing I do is look for any new egg sacks in their mouths," Navidi says as he peers closely through a glass aquarium at the lighter-colored female tilapia. "These are all Mozambiques."
Navidi is the owner and operator of Future Foods Farms, a 65-acre expanse that he once dreamt of as a young chef in 1998 while visiting Chef John Luis Palladin in Napa Valley. He remembers walking through Palladin's garden with a group of his peers and being completely inspired when the French chef suggested that one day, great chefs are going to be known by the relationships they build with farmers.
As soon as he returned to his native Orange County, Navidi devoted all of his free time to agriculture. First playing with soil, then moving to hydroponics before stumbling on aquaponics, a system of raising fish not just for their flesh but to use the subsequent waste water to fertilize crops.
"Aquaponics is what keeps farmers honest," Navidi says. "I'm not going to kill a couple thousand dollars worth of fish just to save a couple heads of lettuce or some plants from some bugs."
After a farm and restaurant concept fell through in Fountain Valley due to agricultural zoning regulations, Navidi found an old nursery in Brea where he started his full-fledged aquaponic operation in early 2010. "I figured if I can't do agriculture in a commercial zone, I'll do commercial in an agricultural zone," Navidi says with a laugh. "This is what every chef dreams of, a secret restaurant in the middle of their farm."
Navidi ended up holding secret tastings at the farm inside his primary greenhouse up until he opened his newest restaurant, Oceans & Earth in Yorba Linda. Since then, Navidi has transformed the greenhouse into a full-fledged tilapia nursery. Upon completion, the nursery will house twelve 600-gallon tanks ,which he hopes will produce roughly 5,000 fish per year.
As Navidi walks through the various greenhouses, he constantly tinkers and tests out various aquaponic styles in hopes of finding the best method. "For me, everything is about efficiency," Navidi says as he shows his vertical, ebb and flow, NFT (Nutrient Film Technique), and deep-water culture systems. He estimates that in the fall, winter and spring, the farm can produce 15,000 to 20,000 heads of lettuce a month in addition to all the edible flowers and microgreens used at Oceans & Earth. On the tour, he occasionally has me try some of the fresh greens and fruit that flank the pathways: vibrant lemon sorrel, wildly sweet champagne grapes, and something which he refers to as a lemon drop that instantly numbs the tongue and causes your saliva glands to go into overdrive.
Navidi’s phone rings, and he excuses himself briefly when one of his customers, Alice Lin, shows up to purchase some tilapia for her home aquaponic system. She's been growing for about two years, she says. Unfortunately, all her fish recently died and she needs 20 replacements.
"Don't worry, I'll throw in a few extra for you," Navidi tells Lin as she attempts to tally the fish in her bucket.
Navidi says his next step is to provide high-quality tilapia for sale to the public, especially during the summer, when growing greens becomes difficult due to the heat. Outside of the fish and produce he yields throughout the year, Navidi also maintains a chicken coop and watches over about 300 goats, which eat all the weeds on the property and saves him from having to use pesticides.
"I'm a goat herder, chef, businessman and farmer," Navidi jokes as he surveys the goats territory behind an electric fence.
Prior to getting into cooking and farming, Navidi was a sponsored snowboarder—the quintessential OC surf, skate and snow rat. But hours before his first big photo shoot, Navidi recalls crashing while riding down a mountain at Broken Top in Oregon, breaking his wrist and ribs in the process. After the injury, Navidi says he decided to invest himself fully into cooking while working at Mt. Bachelor. "The pastry chef was this 80 year old guy that had a heart attack, so they let me step in and gave me two weeks to prove myself," Navidi recalls. "That's when I realized that I wanted to become a chef."
Up until that point, Navidi's parents knew he was cooking but had no idea how serious he was at honing his craft. After cooking them dinner during a visit to Oregon, his mother made him promise to open a restaurant in his hometown of Yorba Linda and asked him to name it. At 19—a good two decades before he finally opened it—he decided to call it Oceans & Earth.
“He's always thinking of what's next,” says Bryce Greer, a cook whom Navidi hired after visiting and helping out at the farm. “Chef's a very driven individual. It's been a fun experience learning from him in the kitchen and at the farm.”
Almost two years into the restaurant, Navidi says his priority is to make sure that the community stands behind the concept of sustainability and high-quality, home-grown ingredients. He recently added brunch on the weekends, private chef's tastings and even has plans drawn up for a mini aquaponics system for the restaurant’s patio and hopes to have it running very soon so he can show his customers exactly what he does at the farm when they come to dine.
“Teaching people is so important,” Navidi emphasizes. “It’s not about me making money; it’s about sharing and making people happy. It’s awesome, man. I dig it.”
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Future Foods Farms, 2501-2811 Valencia Ave, Brea, 714-448-4614, futurefoodsfarms.com
Oceans & Earth, 20305 Yorba Linda Blvd, Yorba Linda, 714-970-7027, www.oceansandearthrestaurant.com