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Chefs' ideas, fresh from the market

Every week, the season's best inspires new dishes all over town.

May 07, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

IT'S just past 8 on a chilly spring morning and T. Nicholas Peter, chef at the Little Door restaurant, is making his rounds at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. He's already ordered 50 pounds of onions and shallots from Thogmartin and 20 bunches of candy beets from Jaime Farms when he stops at the Suncoast stand and praises the beautiful purple artichokes.

"Nicholas, check this out," says the farmer, Phil Green. From under the table he pulls a plastic bin full of perfect miniature cauliflower, each head no bigger than a golf ball. "This is new. We just started getting them last weekend."

And thus is another dish born. The next week at the Little Door, that cauliflower, blanched and marinated in a mustard-tarragon vinaigrette, makes a garnish for a special of beef carpaccio.

Farmers markets have long been favorite haunts for Southern California cooks, but with a few notable exceptions the chefs mainly used them as colorful backdrops for visiting camera crews. The fruits and vegetables they actually served came from more traditional sources.

Over the last several years, that has changed. What once was a mere handful of market-shopping chefs has turned into several score. Santa Monica farmers market manager Laura Avery estimates that on any given week, at least 30 chefs are buying their restaurants' fruits and vegetables there.

Though chefs can also be found at other markets across Southern California, particularly the ones on Saturday in Santa Monica and Sunday in Hollywood, the Wednesday Santa Monica market is the most popular -- historically it has attracted top-level farmers, and Wednesday is the perfect day to stock up for the busy weekend.

Among the market chefs are familiar names such as Sherry Yard from Spago, Suzanne Goin from Lucques and AOC, Josiah Citrin from Melisse, Bruce Marder from Capo, Scooter Kanfer from the House, Joe Miller from Joe's, Alain Giraud from Bastide and Campanile's Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton.

There is a trickle-down effect too: Students from local culinary schools wander the market proudly, showing off their baggy checked pants and bulky chef jackets as if they were the latest from Dolce & Gabbana.

This has resulted in changes not just for the restaurants but for the farmers as well. When you see things like stinging nettles and wild arugula flowers on a menu today, the chances are they came from the Santa Monica farmers market. The same is also true for other special ingredients, from Persian mulberries to ramps.

In return, the chefs provide the farmers not only with inspiration for new crops, but more importantly with a solid revenue stream. Chefs say they typically spend $1,200 to $1,500 a week at the market.

"We could not be doing what we're doing today if it were not for the chefs," says Coastal Organics' Maryann Carpenter. "On Wednesdays, three-fourths of our sales are to restaurants. Almost our whole spring lineup of vegetables was selected to serve chefs."

The first big hit: favas

Take fava beans, perhaps the most notable market success. It wasn't so long ago they were largely unknown. First, a couple of farmers started growing them, then chefs caught on and built demand. Today, it seems mounds of fava beans have replaced pints of strawberries as signs of spring.

The quest for variety has even sent Flora Bella Farms' James Birch out of his fields to harvest wild greens like miners' lettuce, lambs' quarters and purslane. "I don't know if the chefs demanded them, but they sure went for them once they were here," he says.

Sometimes hard-to-find ingredients become so sought after that chefs resort to unusual methods to secure a supply. A prime example is delicate, intensely flavored Persian mulberries. Kim and Clarence Blain at Circle C Ranch are the biggest growers of them, and pastry chefs Yard and Silverton seem to have a friendly competition for who gets the lion's share.

Yard, with her Brooklyn accent and Betty Boop voice, can frequently be found at the Circle C stand, hanging out in the truck or even helping unload. And when Kim Blain had gall-bladder surgery, Silverton sent a big hand-wrapped box of specially prepared pastries to the hospital.

This competition for fruit draws a chuckle from farmer Birch. Of course, he sends all the mulberries from his 20-year-old tree to Goin, one of his steadiest customers.

The next big thing may be agretti, a slightly bitter Italian green. Paul Schrade, a former farm worker organizer turned market forager for Campanile, brought seeds back on his last trip to Italy. Now both Thogmartin Farms and Polito Family Farms are growing it and a couple of other farmers have planted it as well.

These new items tend to start slowly. Farmers have learned that although chefs might be passionate about an ingredient one day, by the time it has been grown and harvested they sometimes have lost interest, leaving the farmer holding the bag.

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