Early every Wednesday, chef Rich Mead’s day begins with a trip to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, where he has cultivated long-lasting relationships with the growers to create a menu around freshly harvested ingredients for his restaurant, Farmhouse at Roger’s Gardens.
It’s all part of his guiding principles, a blend of two philosophies: fresh and sustainable.
For more than two decades, Mead has been a pioneer and advocate in working directly with local farmers, ranchers and producers to advance the burgeoning farm-to-table movement here in Orange County.
Prior to embarking on a career in the culinary world, the Washington, D.C., native got his education in economics. Mead would become a paper-pusher for the IRS before realizing the cubicle life wasn’t for him. “In junior high, my parents had a friend that was the attorney for the Washington, D.C., Restaurant Association,” Mead says. “He would get me jobs in the summer, and they were always in the kitchen and usually washing dishes.” That turned out to have had a huge impact on his life and career.
Using his background in economics and business to link the front with the back of the house, he began his foray into the restaurant business at Stanley’s. That would lead to 17th Street Cafe in Santa Monica, where he developed his first direct relationship with a purveyor. “For years, I’d take random deliveries at the back of the restaurant,” Mead says. “A box of baby lettuce, wild mushrooms, whatever it was. The answer was always ‘yes’—for me, it was about being creative.”
Today, Farmhouse is a neighborhood eatery that’s so popular it has turned into a culinary destination—and for good reason. Mead’s cuisine is fantastic. Inspiration comes from the foods themselves, with local ingredients used to make comforting and delicious dishes of both technique and subtlety.
The restaurant and garden coexist in a way that is not only visually appealing, but also inspirational. The beautiful terrace overlooking Roger’s Gardens’ scenic greenery allows the field-to-fork experience to come to full fruition.
Despite his hard-won lessons with past restaurants closing, Mead’s passion and persistence never lost momentum. His commitment to raising awareness about the connections between agricultural production and fresh-tasting food has remained instrumental in bringing chefs and farmers together to create a dialogue. “My friend and fellow farm dinner participant Paddy Glennon of Superior Seafood formed a group called the Culinary Liberation Front. It’s a loosely organized group of chefs that we put together to allow chefs a chance to gather and share information, maybe a meal, maybe a beer and unwind,” he says. “This was a chance to discuss sustainability, suppliers and farmers’ markets. A way for everyone to grow and hopefully impact the dining scene in Orange County in a positive way.”
Mead hopes more chefs will follow the path of such thoughtful leaders as chef Carlos Salgado of Taco María and Haven’s chef Greg Daniels who use their platforms to support organic farmers and the movement toward a more resilient and sustainable food system. “As a chef, you’re in a position where people will listen to you,” he explains.
Sitting in the shade of the gazebo, Mead looks at his staff as they prepare to open. “The excitement of this restaurant is coming in and learning something all the time,” he says. “The hard part here is turning tables because everyone wants to stay forever. You can’t beat this environment; the experience here is really unique.”
Cynthia Rebolledo covers anything and everything food, culture and spirits.