Meet the Producers

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There were plenty of things in this homecoming that made my heart swell with Bay Area love (a welcome-home burrito, hoppy local beer on tap everywhere), but it was my first trip to a farmers’ market that brought me near tears: tables and tables filled with jewel-bright, luscious produce.

So I may have what could be termed a “vegetable addiction.” But it is undeniable that the produce we have access to in this city is pretty freaking incomparable. In addition to our numerous markets, where every home cook can make her meal farm fresh, the bounty of the surrounding areas has had a serious impact on our restaurant culture as well.

Any restaurant deemed “high quality” will feature a significant amount of local, seasonal goods. Eaters have caught onto the wealth that our farms provide, but often it’s the city’s top chefs who have led us there. Through their partnerships with farms, it’s impossible to avoid gaining an appreciation for the incredible foodstuffs we are granted access to.

I’ve always been interested in the relationships that chefs have with local produce. I explored three of these restaurant-farm pairings and saw the kinds of dishes that showcase the bounty that surrounds us. I also visited the farms themselves, talked to the farmers about their methods, and yes, went home with some produce in my pockets.

It may have been my sweetest homecoming yet.

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As I arrive at one of the three Tenbrink properties in Fairfield, Steve Tenbrink is slowly moving through rows of tomatoes. He’s quietly conversing with pickers in Spanish and going over a long handwritten list of varietals with bordello-worthy names: Black Plum, Purple Russian, Lillian. I’ve come from the Oxbow Public Market, where his wife Linda sets up shop on Saturday mornings, selling to locals and chefs, and doling out advice.

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Tenbrink Farms began in 1981 with 5 1/2 acres. They are now 100 acres of fruit, vegetables, walnuts, and wine grapes across three plots of land. I’ve arrived at the tomato patch, where you can also find a number of lettuces, melons, and fruit trees. It’s a hot, dry day and the smell from the ripe fruit is intoxicating.

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Steve greets me with a slow, shy smile, his mustache curving up around his full-face grin. I peer over his shoulder at the neatly inked list and think of the word Linda used to describe his farming techniques: meticulous. When talking about the consistently high quality of the fruits and vegetables they grow, Linda credits Steve’s incredible attention to detail and deep love of his work.

RN74 chef Jason Berthold agrees. “When Linda Tenbrink rolls up in her minivan with boxes of the most beautiful produce you can imagine ... it doesn’t get better than that,” he says. Jason became acquainted with the couple while working at The French Laundry and decided to try his hand at making wine. He set up shop at the Tenbrinks’ vineyard, making the relationship a close one.

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“Linda’s my West Coast mother!” Jason says. “I essentially view Tenbrink as our farm, our garden. There’s a mutual commitment we’ve made to each other.”

This closeness extends to the specific produce the Tenbrinks grow –they gave Jason a seed catalogue last winter and had him circle what he wanted. Steve loves the challenge of the new requests, as well. “I’m growing things I’ve never grown before!” he says, boyishly excited as he shows off some gorgeous lettuces, and then plucks a nectarine from a nearby tree for me to eat.

Jason finds this relationship particularly valuable because he doesn’t have the time to scour the markets day to day. “I’m not trying to compete with restaurants who go to 30 markets and write their menu at 4 o’clock,” he says. “But the relationship with Tenbrink is a very personal connection for me, and it makes it that much better.”

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Hearing chef Michael Tusk talk about the farms he works with is like listening to an art aficionado talk about the search for their next masterpiece.

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Everyone involved with both of his highly reputed restaurants, Quince and Cotogna – chefs and front of house staff alike – gets to know the farmers.

“We’ve got a schedule where everyone goes to a market; that way we can hit five to six markets a week,” he tells me in the midday quiet of the lounge at Quince.

Michael is passionate about spreading the knowledge of farms and produce to the public. He’s found that over the last decade or so, the increased awareness of both is immensely significant. “The amount of restaurants that buy directly has grown,” he says. “It has changed the way a lot of chefs order.”

When a chef with his credo and dedication recommends a farm as strongly as Michael recommended Fresh Run Farms, you take notice. Run by Peter Martinelli, Fresh Run never refrigerates or freezes its produce.

“I first got attached to his butter beans, then his squash blossoms were amazing,” Michael tells me. “He’s one of those farmers where everything comes in pristine condition.”

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Fresh Run is tucked down a hidden dirt road in Bolinas, and features rolling hills and goats bleating indignantly. Peter proves to be an enthusiastic host, insisting I take home handfuls of Sun Gold tomatoes and a bunch of fennel. “Just tell the farmer what you’re hungry for!” he says, pointing out his pet chicken and flourishing pumpkin patch while leading us off to find some snacks.

The land has been in Peter’s family for 70 years. This background not only gave him his “farming bug,” it’s inspired his methods as well.

“When I was growing up, a bunch of great Italian guys were doing “truck produce” – they’d grow it and truck it into the city right away, to the old farmers’ market. That model has always appealed to me.”

He took over the land 12 years ago, and spent the first 10 really getting to know the 15 acres he has in production. This care and attention, along with his dedication to never “artificially shocking” his produce, has allowed him to come up with a core of products that grow consistently very well. He doesn’t often take requests, but credits feedback from the chefs he deals with to helping him figure out what works particularly well.

Michael Tusk has been one provider of this positive feedback. “It’s interesting to see that certain chefs buy from certain farms,” Michael says. “I’m willing to go the extra yard to work with someone like Peter – you can taste how special it is.”

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Chef Brett Cooper describes his first experience hitting the markets in San Francisco in 2002 as being “eye-opening.”

“The experience stuck with me,” he says, as Outerlands opens its doors for dinner service on a blustery, gray evening.

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Having sampled some fresh-from-the-ground produce of late, I can see what he means. The care that these farmers put into their work is hugely evident in the incredible quality and flavor of their fruits and vegetables.

When I arrive at Dirty Girl in Watsonville, I’m about ready to drop my city life and start working the land full time. Owner Joe Schirmer arrives with his wife Miranda and their two little boys Charlie and Calvin. The kids go running through the fields, plucking bursting tomatoes from the vine and eating them like apples, returning with dirt and juice covered grins.

Joe comes off as the ultimate Santa Cruz surfer with a serious head for both growing and selling his produce. After working on different farms and traveling around the country in his 20s, he bought the farm in 1999. Dirty Girl was three acres then – now it’s 34 and spread across three different properties. At the Watsonville farm, the air is rich with warm soil and the savory smell of tomato plants.

“Twenty years ago, I was clueless,” he says. “I barely knew who Alice Waters was. But you get into farming, and you can’t help but be aware of the restaurant world.”

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Dirty Girl has become known for its strawberries and dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes – meaning the tomatoes Charlie and Calvin are eating in September were last watered on April 16. I’m told to take off my jacket as the boys and Miranda start filling it with Early Girls. Grabbing one, I bite in and am soon covered in juice.

Brett Cooper seems to understand my eye-rolling pleasure as we talk about Dirty Girl’s offerings.

“Dirty Girl has exceptional produce year-round, but during the transition between spring and summer, you walk up to the stand and it’s just exploding with the most beautiful produce,” he says. “I don’t know what’s in their soil ... but everything has such a unique flavor. I know that every single thing I pick up from there will be outstanding.”

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Similar to Michael Tusk, Brett hits up as many markets as possible, getting his staff on board as well. “I’m fortunate enough to work in a smaller place like Outerlands and still use high-end products,” he says of the restaurant’s dedication to local produce and meats.

Joe particularly digs Brett’s approach at Outerlands, and thinks his fine dining background (Rubicon, Coi) makes the combination all the better.

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“It’s so cool to see Brett come down into Surflandia and do super food in that venue,” he says. “He was just like, ‘I want good food that my friends can eat.’ That’srad.

Ultimately, for all of these farmers and chefs, it’s about making food taste as good as it possibly can. It startsat the farm, where dedication to the craft of growing and attention to quality makes the flavors vibrant. It ends in the restaurant, where chefs showcase this greatness.

Or does it end? Food of this quality leads us to explore the farmers’ markets ourselves, to seek out the same kind of excellence. And living in the Bay Area, why wouldn’t we?

Joe may have said it best, as I staggered off with a massive crate of tomatoes and fresh cranberry beans: “There are just so many reasons to be into food,” he said. “The more you get into food, the richer your life is.”

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Sample the goods at RN74Quince and Cotogna, and Outerlands. While Tenbrink, Fresh Run, and Dirty Girl Farms are not open to the public, you can find them at a variety of farmers’ markets and, of course, restaurants around the Bay Area.

Tenbrink Farms is at the Napa Farmers Market on Tuesday and Saturday (right across from the Oxbow Public Market, through October). You can also sign up for their winery’s mailing list, and get invited to events held at the vineyard. Steve and Linda’s produce has made appearances at Central Kitchen, Flour + Water, Salumeria, and Benu in addition to RN74.

Fresh Run Farm can be found at the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market and the Marin Country Mart at Larkspur Landing until November 5; and the Fresh Run Farm Stand at the Stinson Beach Grocery Store through November. Check out specific times and locations here, and the full list of restaurants using Fresh Run produce, in addition to Quince and Cotogna, here.

Dirty Girl Produce can be found at the Ferry Building Farmers Market on Thursdays and Saturdays. Check out their other market appearances in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz here, and the (very large) list of partner restaurants besides Outerlands here.

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Published on November 21, 2012, 2012

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