How to Shop Like a Chef at Santa Monica's Farmers Market
Hollywood's top elite cooks, from Suzanne Goin to Curtis Stone, do off-the-truck deals and develop daily specials amid the stalls as pros share what to stock up on and sample at the most famous produce stand in town
This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If you have a place to be Wednesday mornings other than at the intersection of Arizona Avenue and Second Street in Santa Monica, then you are not a chef. The midweek Santa Monica Farmers Market — also known as the "chef's market" or just "the Wednesday market," as seen in Jon Favreau's Chef — is a magnet for the city's top cooking talent (not to mention market fans Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber) at the entertainment industry's most popular and beloved restaurants. One morning in May, a patch of asphalt beside the Coleman Family Farm stand was crowded with Octavio Becerra (Acabar), Govind Armstrong (Post & Beam, Willie Jane), Valerie Gordon (Valerie Confections) and Akasha Richmond, former private chef to Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson who now runs Akasha Restaurant in Culver City. Rain or shine, chefs arrive well before the market officially opens at 8:30 a.m. to hoover up the best produce in secretive deals off the back of farmers' trucks. By the time a civilian crowd floods in midmorning, they're done, except for hanging out at a few favored farmers' stalls that serve as ad hoc VIP lounges. "It's the best farmers market in the country in terms of size, diversity and the array of produce," says Ari Taymor, the highly lauded chef behind downtown's Alma (and also Julie Taymor's nephew). "Even in San Francisco, there's nothing that approaches it."
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The singular quality of the ingredients is what attracts the pros, says Taymor, who explains that he often invents dishes as he's shopping based on what's in season. Adds Curtis Stone, owner- chef of Beverly Hills' Maude: "All of this stuff could be delivered to the back door of my restaurant, but I come because you can talk to farmers about growing things specifically for you. It's the inspiration." Becerra says that the elite cadre of growers generally recognized as the best in Southern California brings to Santa Monica the rarities and novelties that inspire the most creative menus in town year-round — the green strawberries, Surinam cherries, wild nettles, bluefoot chanterelles, cardoons and bergamots available nowhere else, making the Wednesday market an incubator for trends, like a weekly Sundance Film Festival for foodies. "It's first dibs," says Gordon, whose seasonally driven bakery was the late Nora Ephron's go-to for its coffee crunch cake. "The farmers bring their absolute best because of who comes here." Adds Barbara Spencer of cult favorite Windrose Farm: "Here, our business is 70 percent chefs and brokers. Things are presold from the back of the truck. It's different from other markets."
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The Wednesday market opened in 1981 under Ruth Yannatta Goldway, then the progressive mayor of the "People's Republic of Santa Monica," to take advantage of a new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that allowed farmers to sell directly to consumers. By the mid-'90s, chefs were starting to make the trip. "Nancy Silverton [of Mozza] would come and park her truck in an alley and spend four hours shopping," recalls SMFM manager Laura Avery. "She would say to people, 'Come to Campanile on Thursday because I shop on Wednesday.' " Today more than 100 restaurants shop on Arizona Avenue, as do organic produce brokers that distribute to top kitchens including Spago. Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Bouchon) claims that fans have spotted him and rushed home to get their copies of his cookbooks to sign, but all chefs enjoy the "community vibe," says Richmond as she stands next to chef Becerra on Second Street. "In the end," adds Becerra, "food is about community, and here is where we come to commune." The following are the stars of the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market.
COLEMAN FAMILY FARM
"What they do is unbelievable," says Alma's Taymor. "They grow maybe 35 different herbs. Get there early, and you can find any herb that you can grow in Southern California." Coleman's offerings are a key resource for chefs and include the most impressive leafy greens in the market, from heirloom Speckled Trout romaine to exotic Asian sword lettuce to wild lamb's quarters.
If you've eaten arugula at one of Suzanne Goin's outposts (Lucques, AOC, Tavern), then you have tasted farmer James Birch's work. Flora Bella has been organic
for more than 20 years, and today Birch delivers exceptional vegetables, wild foraged greens and practically anything else that will grow in the rich Sierra foothills just outside of Kings Canyon National Park. Alice Waters and Martha Stewart both have given shout- outs to Flora Bella, and regular clients include Melisse, Animal, Craig Thornton of Wolvesmouth and Jim Carrey's personal chef.
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ISABELL'S HONEY FARM
Connoisseurs flock to Armenian farmer Ruben Mkrtchyan's stall not for sweet confections but for his collection of mind-blowing Uzbek and Persian melons. Available in summer, they may be the rarest — and certainly some of the most succulent — fruit of the entire year.
MUD CREEK RANCH
Steven and Robin Smith cultivate about 400 varieties of fruit, likely more than any other SoCal farmer. Their specialty is citrus, from tiny kumquats to Tahitian pomelos the size of a baby's head, with an emphasis on mandarins and oddities including yuzu, bergamots and femminello lemons. Other specialties include hard- to-find mulberries in summer and quince in fall. (Directly across the way, Garcia Organic Farms is Taymor's favorite for more familiar citrus, including Cara Cara navel oranges, Meyer lemons and sweet limes.)
MURRAY FAMILY FARMS
Insiders choose Murray for all the cane berries, including a half-dozen types of blackberries and the elusive boysenberry, a blackberry-raspberry hybrid that once thrived in SoCal and was the basis of Knott's Berry Farm's early success.
The gentlemanly Schaner's well-groomed stand has the essentials for classical cooking — shallots, bouquet garni herbs and mirepoix vegetables — as well as citrus, avocados and edible rose petals. Then there are Schaner's eggs, which come in every size and speckle: chicken, turkey, duck, pheasant, quail, even emu.
See Canyon's fall harvest includes exceptional heirloom apples and pears. But for a month starting in late June, Mike Cirone of See Canyon brings one of the most hotly anticipated offerings of the year to the market: Blenheim apricots. Cirone's apricots are dry farmed — not irrigated — near Paso Robles, so they develop an intense flavor. Dueling jam makers Gordon of Valerie Confections and Jessica Koslow of Sqirl work furiously during the brief season to make Blenheim apricot jam, and it sells out at any price.
WEISER FAMILY FARMS
If you've eaten a purple potato or a red carrot at an L.A. restaurant, chances are it came from Weiser, a root-crop specialist. Alex Weiser also gets credit for introducing Angelenos to crosnes, a peculiar tuber that he first planted at the urging of French chef Alain Giraud.
Barbara and Bill Spencer inspire intense loyalty for their biodynamic farming practices and heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties. Windrose garlic and onions are considered the gold standard, their potatoes are inexplicably delicious, and their orchards yield rare apple varieties. The produce appears on menus at Gjelina and Rustic Canyon, and Evan Funke of Bucato is a fan. Tobey Maguire, Jennifer Garner and chef Stone also have been spotted at the Windrose stand.
It's a local rite of spring: Zuckerman's jumbo asparagus as thick as your thumb appears in late February and instantly hits menus across town, from the establishment favorites (Mozza) to hyper-trendy pop-ups (Guerrilla Tacos).