Farmers and chefs achieve a delicious collaboration in Southern California.
“I bit into a Babcock peach. It dripped all over me and the delicious flavor kicked off memories,” says SideCar Restaurant (Ventura, California) Chef Tim Kilcoyne of a recent farm visit. “I remember, when I was really little, sneaking out and taking apples off the tree or peaches or pomegranates, and how wonderful they tasted.
“I want to give everyone else that same flavor experience,” he says. “That’s why I buy directly from farmers.”
In 2007, Tim took his fresh food passion one step further using a model that many eateries use to honor select wineries. Tim’s so-called farmer’s dinners would be similar to a wine maker’s dinner in which a winery is honored and the dinner courses are paired with the guest wines. For his restaurant, Tim suggested dinners honoring popular farms instead.
Tim’s farmer’s dinners began in February 2008 and continue monthly, except for the holiday months of November and December. The events feature a favorite local farm and highlight the farm’s produce at its peak. In January, it’s blood oranges, February/March tangerines, and so on.
In May, SideCar’s menu honored Oxnard’s Tamai Family Farms with fresh menu selections from the fourth-generation operation’s 35 acres. Tim met the Tamai family while searching for produce at Santa Monica’s well known Farmers’ Market. They have been in a food-borne partnership for years.
Guests at this particular SideCar’s farmer’s dinner ate in the historic 1910 Pullman dining car turned restaurant, while listening to Daisy Tamai’s stories about the family, farmers’ markets and the farm.
“When my father, my sister Donna Velazquez and I started to (sell at) the farmers’ markets 28 years ago, it was a whole new concept of marketing. The public didn’t know what to expect ... they were slightly uncivilized at first … people grabbing, stealing. Our family had to learn how to handle it. My father had quite a temper,” Daisy says.
Her father went to the market for a few years, and he couldn’t handle it. “He said people were just too rude, and he didn’t like people trying to bargain with him. He thought he was (asking) a fair price, and he said, ‘If they didn’t like it they shouldn’t buy it.’ Fights happened. We had to stop Father from going,” Daisy says. “We felt the sales were better handled by the women in the family. The men would rather stay at the farm and talk to the vegetables.”
Daisy Tamai’s family story begins four generations ago. “My grandmother, Setsuko Kashiki Tamai, and my father, Jim Tadao Tamai, were in Manzanar (one of the Japanese-American internment camps in the United States during World War II). My grandmother lost her home with all her personal belongings. (Internees were allowed to bring only one small suitcase to the camps.) My grandfather had passed away.”
Daisy relates how difficult it was when they came back to Southern California. “Oh, they struggled. My grandmother started to do very small-scale farming. They would harvest root vegetables and sell them. They had chickens and sold eggs. They did whatever they could to survive. I remember my dad saying they had so little money that their dinner consisted of all vegetables with a tiny piece of chicken or beef, and that would have to be stretched out for the whole family.” Daisy, one of six siblings, first worked at the market in her last year of high school. The family business has made significant progress since then.
Today, the Tamais grow close to 100 different varieties of vegetables. The list includes nine types of tomatoes (zebra, cluster, pineapple, Cherokee, brandywine, cherry, roma, Japanese, beefsteak), black kale, several beets (red, candy, golden and white), three types of cucumbers (pickling, Persian, Japanese), and many more.
Novelty produce items, sought by chefs, are what Tamai Family Farms tries to develop. Currently, wild arugula is a big hit. “Often, our seed man pushes us to try a new product, and we’ll try it. There’s a lot of hit and miss,” Daisy says. “You never really know … you try to take your best guess at what would be good.”
The Tamai Farm has begun to include chefs’ visits to their farm. Daisy enjoys the chance to sit down and talk with customers for a longer period of time. “At the market you’re limited. You may want to talk with someone longer, but you can’t because you have other customers,” she says.
Chef Tim visits with a few farmers who don’t sell at markets, because, “If I’m in a kitchen all day, (visiting the farms) is a good excuse to get out in the fresh air. You see the passion the farmer has for growing. It increases respect for what they do.”
“It’s all about the produce in season. Each year’s produce tastes different. The produce tells us what to do; we try not to duplicate dishes from prior years. We’ve been here five years: five years times four seasons is 20 menus in my archives. Nothing is over complicated. My style of cooking is trying to bring out the little thing in the back of everyone’s mind that their moms used to cook, or the taste of fresh produce they may have grown.”
Tim points out the difficulty getting dinner patrons to accept seasonal menu changes. “I think Americans like to know what to expect; we don’t like to be surprised too much. In the beginning, diners came in, they loved something, then they came back a couple of weeks later, and when it was different, they didn’t like it. But, once they got to know what we changed with the seasons, they started to enjoy it. Now people ask for a copy of each menu, and apparently, have their own little file of all our menus. A lot of them look forward to the next season.
“When it starts getting a little cooler, people stop me at the farmers’ market and say, ‘Is it almost time for butternut squash soup?’”
Libby Platus writes about food from the farm, ranch or garden to the table. A native of Los Angeles, she’s visited all 50 states discovering interesting places and fun things to do.
The SideCar Restaurant, 3029 E. Main Street, Ventura, CA 93003, 805-653-7433.
Tamai Family Farms, 1701 Holly Ave., Oxnard, CA 93030; 805-485-4250.
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