In this series, we take a trip to the farmers market with chefs across the Eater universe to find out what's in season, why they choose what they do, and how they plan to transform the goods into their best dishes. The series is sponsored by Naked® Juice, makers of delicious, all-natural juices.[Photos: Nikki Stout]
Rancho Santa Fe's family-owned Chino Farms is venerated by California's most celebrated restaurants, including Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and Wolfgang Puck's Spago. For decades, chefs from San Diego and Los Angeles have faithfully visited the farm, which was founded in the 1950's, to pick up fresh produce for their kitchens. Chino's strawberries are legendary; they also grow herbs, lettuces, greens, root vegetables and more on their lush 50 acres.
Among the most notable and frequent shoppers is Trey Foshee, executive chef and partner of George's at the Cove, who stops at Chino's Vegetable Shop farmstand nearly every morning on his way to his La Jolla restaurant. Foshee, who trained at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, arrived in San Diego in 1999 from Robert Redford's Sundance Resort. Within George's at the Cove, he oversees two restaurants and a bar; California Modern is the chef's showcase for fine dining, featuring seasonal cuisine and locally foraged or sourced ingredients. Eater San Diego recently joined Foshee at Chino Farm to talk about his relationship with the Chino family and why the chef believes in supporting local farms. Stay tuned for the second part of this story to see how the chef transforms all this produce into his TBL3 experience, a showcase for the vegetables and a distillation of Foshee's culinary philosophy.
How did you first get introduced to the farm?
It was in the early 90's when I was working in Los Angeles. Spago was a huge player, and I always followed what Alice Waters was doing so the Chino name came up and we started driving down to San Diego once a week. When I moved here, one of the reasons was to work with this product.
What makes this farm, and what they do, special?
The difference for me is that the stuff that I'll get today was picked today. Even in farmer's markets that's not always the case, sometimes that produce gets picked a day or two in advance. I'm able to come to the farm, grab product that came out of the ground that day and use it the same day. Putting things in the refrigerator takes the life out of it, especially with things like corn where the conversion from sugar and starch happens so quickly.
How often do you shop here?
I'm here five days a week. They're closed on Mondays, and one of my sous chefs comes on Sunday.
How much produce do you buy on a daily basis?
I believe we're the largest restaurant account they have. The amount really depends on the season; in the summertime when we're getting corn, we buy four or five dozen at a time, and 30 pound boxes of tomatoes.
Are you able to get first dibs on some ingredients?
They're pretty fair with the way they do things, but there are times when we might get something that's just starting, and I hope it's because they know I'll appreciate it and do something good with it. If it's the first corn of the season, we'll do an amuse with it so we can bring it to a lot of people and say they're getting the first bite of the season.
There are some things we use that I don't think other people do; we use quite a bit a French sorrel and pull things like peach blossoms.
How much of the produce on your menu is from here?
We don't use it upstairs on the Ocean Terrace because the menu's at a lower price point and it's a more casual environment. We use Specialty Produce up there; some of it's local, some is not. For California Modern, at least 80% of our produce comes from here.
Do you shop farmer's markets too?
I do, a few times a month to see what's going on and see what people are planting. There's some pretty interesting kinds of exotic fruits grown in San Diego that Chino's doesn't grow, so we'll get some of that. We also use Crows Pass Farm in the restaurant and they pull from a lot of different local farms.
A lot of local chefs have said that they're over the use of the term "farm-to-table" because the meaning's become diluted. What's your take on that?
I feel two ways about it. When you're supporting a good cause, it doesn't do anyone any good to be critical of how it's being supported. My opinion is that good chefs have always been farm-to-table, so for me, the term means something but I think it has been diluted because of the honesty of whether something really is from a certain farm, or whether you're really going out into a community, finding growers and making those relationships, or, are you getting things through a wholesaler who might go to a farmer's market in Los Angeles. Is that really farm-to-table, or farm-to-middleman-to-table? But the more everything pushes people in the right direction, the better off we all are.
What are some extra steps that you think restaurants need to take?
As a chef you just have to make the time commitment. San Diego's the hub of family farms in the United States; find a farm near you, figure out if they'll sell to you and how it can work, and build a relationship.
Why is having the relationship with Chino Farms important to you?
Number one is the product; over and above our friendship, if I don't believe the product is better than there's no point in doing it. I'm not going to do it just to put the Chino Farms name on the menu. If the stuff doesn't take good, I don't use it, but everything I've ever gotten from them has always been superior; when you put their carrots up against other farms' carrots, they just taste better. The relationship started with my respect for their products, and that has built into a friendship and mutual respect over the years.
What are some changes you'd like to see in terms of farms working with restaurants?
Chino doesn't deliver so that's impractical for some people, so maybe I'd like to see more farms that deliver directly to restaurants, but the problem is when you look at everyone's product sheets, a lot of them are growing the same things. That makes sense, since we're in San Diego and not everything can grow here, but I think they need to be more aware of each other, and what they're individually good at growing. If possible, I'd like there to be a little bit more variety.
How much do you spend here at Chino Farms?
It's a financial commitment. Believe me, we have conversations when food costs go up, but this is the one part that we don't touch because it's the more important part of our menu. For George's California Modern, we spend $3,000 to $10,000 a month just at Chino's.