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March 14-20, 2007

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On the Menu Spring 2007:
Top chefs | Cult wine | Local produce


Parcel 104

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
I would like to walk 100 miles: Chef Bart Hosmer, left, pastry chef Carlos Sanchez and chef de cuisine Jonathan Hall are bringing Parcel 104 into the 100-mile Club.

Local Produce Makes Good

Silicon Valley restaurants unveil seasonal offerings for spring

By Cheryl Sternman Rule


WITH the average meal traveling more than 1,500 miles from farm to table, Silicon Valley chefs stand out in their commitment to procuring ingredients locally. And at no time is this commitment more richly rewarded than in the first few weeks of spring. With edible flowers budding, asparagus stalking and green garlic wafting over the region, three well-reputed fine dining chefs celebrate spring's arrival with a singular devotion to what's growing nearby.

Executive chef Bart Hosmer of Parcel 104 in Santa Clara sources most of his food from within 150 to 200 miles of the restaurant. On June 2, however, he'll reduce this distance to 104 miles, hosting a special dinner to honor truly local purveyors. While the menu is still in flux, Hosmer expects to feature tomatoes, spring lettuces, herbs and strawberries as well as lamb, cheeses, chocolate and wine—all from the immediate region.

Parcel 104 didn't invent the notion of the 100-mile dinner (see www.100milediet.org), but it's still unusual for a restaurant to limit its purchasing to such a tight radius. Hosmer's plans took shape at a recent tomato-themed event at Lone Willow Ranch in Firebraugh, Calif.

"The farmers talked about how they hate when their food has to be shipped or travel long distances," he says. "What's happened is that globalization of food has taken away from its quality. We don't pick the product when it's ripe; we pick it early to sit on a loading dock. We've brainwashed ourselves into thinking our food is fresh when it's not. And we've made a concession that this is OK because we're more concerned with convenience than with quality."

To a chef like Hosmer, who has built his reputation working with farm-fresh, seasonal food, this state of affairs is intensely frustrating. The "104-mile dinner" is his response. The event will showcase the superior quality of what's grown within a few zip codes while also demonstrating the chef's commitment to sustainability: Hosmer arranged for Planktos, a San Francisco-based eco-restoration company, to "erase the carbon footprint" of the evening. Using a formula based on Parcel 104's square footage, the miles the delivery trucks must travel and the number of people who attend, Planktos will calculate the dinner's environmental impact, which the restaurant will then offset by purchasing "carbon credits" to restore damaged habitats.

Hosmer makes it clear he doesn't want to be preachy, but he believes strongly in playing whatever role he can. "We need to figure out a way to protect what we have."

A little further up the peninsula, at Chez TJ in Mountain View, chef Christopher Kostow upholds his own commitment to serving locally grown produce, which he acquires from wholesale suppliers at the Ferry Building farmers market in San Francisco. He has also developed tight relationships with specially selected local purveyors, like Todd Spanier, the "King of Mushrooms." Kostow's efforts have already paid dividends: Chez TJ was recently awarded a prestigious Michelin star.

The temptation always exists to look beyond local supplies when the weather is cold, so patience is a top priority. "I could get my asparagus from Mexico, but I wait until they're local."

Kostow insists that there's a lot you can do with root vegetables and cold-weather greens, but he's ready for spring's bounty.

"You reach a point where you're sick of seeing winter vegetables," he admits. "It's not that there's less stuff to use, but there's more cooking involved. When the peas come, we don't have to do a lot to them."

Kostow spends the waning days of winter fine-tuning preparations he's eager to debut to spring-ready diners. He's most excited about a three-part asparagus preparation he's been working on: a hot, white asparagus panna cotta with osetra caviar, a terrine of green pencil asparagus with mousseline sauce, and simply blanched asparagus tips with quail egg and truffles.

"Spring is rejuvenating," he says. "I'm waking up creatively and philosophically."

It's one thing to cook with local produce, but another thing entirely to grow your own. For the past year and a half, executive chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos has been growing 50 percent of his own ingredients in partnership with Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farm in Ben Lomond. Why? Kinch believes that refrigeration saps the sun's energy from produce, causing an intangible quality to literally disappear.

"I'm not going all kooky on you here," he jokes, "but refrigeration deadens flavor and aroma. It's very different picking up the phone and ordering produce and picking it yourself."

So two years ago, after unsuccessfully attempting to locate suitable garden space near his restaurant, Kinch approached Sandberg for advice about where to turn. The two soon discovered a shared vision for producing a self-sustaining, biodynamic restaurant garden, and a fruitful partnership was born. Since its inception, the Manresa garden at Love Apple Farm has doubled in size.

"The changes that have taken place are astonishing," says Kinch. "And it has also been a huge challenge."

For one thing, growing his own food has dramatically changed the way he designs Manresa's menus. Kinch realized if he truly wants to respect the land, he has to use what the garden provides—whenever it's ready.

"The stuff comes to us, and we just need to use it in a Manresa context," he says. "The restaurant has become very vegetable-oriented."

On March 9, 10 and 11, French master chef Alain Passard joined Kinch as guest chef for a series of special dinners at Manresa. Kinch calls Passard "the godfather" of kitchen gardens, or potagers, and he spent a good bit of time researching Passard's 16-acre plots while planning his own. With Passard in town to cook from Kinch's own garden, the farming experience, in a sense, came full-circle.

Kinch couldn't be more pleased with his garden's development. "We're getting as much stuff as we can handle right now. This summer we're going to explode."


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