From Farm to Table
“None of us had ever been deeply involved in the food chain before. It wasn’t long after we opened that we realized how totally corrupt and disgusting it was.”
First-time restaurateur Jay Porter is describing the moment the veil was lifted, when the reality of the industrial food system was revealed to him while opening his North Park sausage house, The Linkery, in 2005.
“You start a restaurant, and the meat guy shows up and says, ‘We have this meat at this price,’ but where it comes from is completely obscured,” Porter explains, sweeping a mop of unruly gray curls from his forehead. “You say, ‘I’d like a pig that comes from a farm or is raised outdoors, this breed or that breed,’ and they’re like, ‘Are you an idiot? Meat doesn’t come like that. You’re crazy; that doesn’t exist.’”
Clad in jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a hog, Porter is discussing food with The Linkery’s general manager, Michael McGuan, and a group of restaurant regulars over dinner at a Tijuana cevicheria. They’re winding down from the morning’s bike ride to Suzie’s Farm in Imperial Beach, a Linkery supplier, where they spent the day walking the fields with husband-and-wife farmers Robin Taylor and Lucila De Alejandro and sampling organic cabbage, radishes, peas, lettuce and more, straight from the earth.
“A lot of [the flavor of] pork depends on what the animal eats,” Porter continues. “Five years ago we couldn’t call the farmer and say, ‘I want you to finish the pig on avocados or acorns for us.’ It was unthinkable.”
“Pretty much any meat you get at The Linkery, I can call the farmer myself,” boasts Porter, who’s instituted a rigorous sourcing program that involves purchasing nearly everything—from grass-fed steak to organic romaine—directly from the ranchers and farmers who grew it, landing The Linkery on Gourmet magazine’s list of Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants in America. Today, the eatery’s daily menu reads like a doctoral dissertation, every ingredient footnoted with the initials of the farm that produced it—if it wasn’t made in-house.
Farm visits like today’s are a regular occurrence for Porter and his staff, who pride themselves on having vetted nearly all of their ingredients not only for taste but for ethics, ensuring that the animals are raised humanely, the land is treated respectfully and the entire food-making operation is generally aboveboard.
“Our farmers now create our menu as much as we do,” he says. “We tell them, ‘Show up with what you’ve got, and charge us what you need to charge.’” This prompts a joke about “the summer squash debacle,” and Porter issues a big, easy guffaw, straight from the belly. It’s the confident laugh of a man determined to stick to his principles even if it means spending another summer knee-deep in squash.
The Cult of Local
It’s no secret Americans are increasingly interested in knowing the story of their food before it arrives on their plates, whether that means watching cooks compete on Top Chef, following their local bistro on Twitter, understanding the mechanics of industrial agriculture through documentaries like Food, Inc. and bestsellers like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma—or just playing plowman on Farmville, a Facebook game with more than 60 million users.
In this ever-growing universe of foodies, farm-to-table dining of the type practiced by The Linkery is the order of the day. Though not a fan of buzzwords like “locavore,” Dominick Fiume of Slow Food Urban San Diego can’t deny that the movement, by any name, is growing.
“It’s approaching everybody’s radar,” he says. “Whether it has to do with health, the environment or supporting the local economy, everybody’s reason for buying and eating more locally is different.”
For those of us brought up on the idea of the American food system as an agrarian utopia, it may be hard to understand what the fuss is about. Isn’t all food grown on a farm? In the loosest sense, most food does go from a farm somewhere to your table; the point is the length of the chain of middlemen the food traverses—not to mention the scale, location and ecological impact of the farm in question.
Some reserve the “local” label for products that are grown within a certain radius—say, 100 or 150 miles. For Jill Richardson, who edits the La Vida Locavore blog (lavidalocavore.org), locavorism is less about instituting strict mileage limits and more about having relationships with the people who grew her food.
“It’s about knowing how it was produced and how the people who produced it were treated,” Richardson says. “It’s about getting food that was produced for maximum taste, not to be hardy [enough] to travel and sit in a warehouse for three weeks.”
For Porter, the motivation is equal parts ethical and epicurean. “The important part of ‘local’ is that it reflect the touch of human hands,” he says. “I’d sure as hell rather bring in lovingly, sustainably farmed pork from Atascadero than factory pork from next door. The food has to be raised with love and taste great. If it’s not that, then it’s not right.”
The Other Locavore
Though he’s arguably doing as much for the local movement as Porter, restaurateur Matt Rimel could hardly be more different. Where Porter rides a bike or takes public transit, strapping Rimel drives a mud-spattered 1-ton pickup with a crossbow in the back, a cowboy hat shoved under the seat and hunter’s deodorant tucked into the driver’s door. A bumper sticker reads “I support the 2nd Amendment: Bridgeport Gun Club.”
Whereas Porter studied computer science, rhetoric and law while collecting degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of San Diego, Rimel hated school, skipping college in favor of a trek to the Philippines to learn how to grade fish for sushi. After opening two successful restaurants in La Jolla—Rimel’s Rotisserie and high-end sushi spot Zenbu—Rimel formed his own fishing company, Ocean Giant, which supplies a dozen San Diego restaurants in addition to his own. Not all of the catch is local—except for uni, lobster and tuna, much of it comes from Hawaii—but more important for Rimel is that the fish is caught humanely (without nets) and that the money supports independent fishermen over farm-fishing operations.
“Most farmed fish is terrible,” he says, disgusted. “They feed them oatmeal, chicken bones, chicken shit, whatever they can get into the grinder. Fish never ate chicken! It’s a Soylent Green kind of thing.”
In his quest to have more control over the quality of his ingredients, Rimel’s next logical step, in 2008, was opening Homegrown Meats, a La Jolla butcher shop selling grass-fed, hormone-free beef from cows roaming freely on 60,000 acres in Palomar Mountain’s Mendenhall Valley. Run by sixth-generation rancher Joel Mendenhall, the family ranch is also the source of the wood used for the tables at Zenbu’s Cardiff location, as well as the firewood that fuels the grill at the rotisserie. If he needs a workout, Rimel sometimes chops and hauls the wood himself.
In contrast to Porter, who puts his rhetoric degree to work informing customers about restaurant happenings via his blog and Twitter account, technophobic Rimel says he doesn’t use a computer or even text-message. (But he is on his cell phone all day long; not five minutes goes by without a ring.) Where Porter operates on a micro scale, dealing one-on-one with about 40 farmers, Rimel’s vision is macro: He’s working on a deal to get his grass-fed hot dogs into Whole Foods Market and is already expanding the Homegrown empire with ranches in Northern California. Rimel’s long-term goal is to build an organic kill plant in the county so livestock raised in San Diego can truly be considered local.
Still, these two polar opposites are united in their activism for local eating, and both men have serious problems with the way the industrial food system works. “The hormones they pump into these animals ... it’s so bad,” says Rimel. “Once people understand where their meat comes from, they’re going have major issues with beef.”
Things aren’t much better where produce is concerned. Though much of what is served in San Diego restaurants may be technically “local”—grown on immense farms in the Imperial Valley—those vegetables are still trucked up to a massive market in Los Angeles, only to turn around and be loaded onto still more polluting trucks bound for San Diego. (A growing number of San Diego restaurants partially bypass this system by buying some of their produce direct from local farms like Chino or La Milpa. How to tell? They’ll boast about it on the menu.)
Hormones and air pollution are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ecological, economic and health-related consequences of “industrial” food, which range from higher risks for E. coli contamination and the spread of viruses like avian flu among factory-raised livestock and poultry to antibiotic resistance, greenhouse gas emissions, farm-chemical runoff and soil erosion.
“This is 99.9 percent of the food available to humans in America,” says Porter. “There’s almost no other choice.”
Thanks to Rimel’s efforts, though, San Diegans do have another choice for beef—and it’s not just benefiting health-conscious consumers. The Homegrown deal is helping local ranchers as well. Prior to partnering with Rimel, Mendenhall would sell his cows at auction, often at very low prices; the animals might change hands three or more times before slaughter, passing through industrial feedlots and likely being fed hormones and antibiotics in the process. Over lunch at his Round Up restaurant (grass-fed burgers, naturally), Mendenhall explains that for Homegrown cows, the chain is shorter, the animal’s life longer and more tranquil and its diet cleaner, consisting not of commodity corn, hormones and other fattening fillers but only what the ruminant evolved to eat: grass.
As “Uncle Matt” bounces Mendenhall’s 8-month-old baby girl on his knee, I realize Rimel and Porter share something else, too: the ability to put a face on the food they serve.
But Isn’t It Expensive?
Short answer: Yes. But not as expensive as you might think. Because small-scale food producers don’t benefit from things that make industrial food artificially lower in price, such as government corn subsidies, cheap petroleum and cheap labor, their food costs more—though Porter says that, pound-for-pound, he can actually get his meat costs close to what he’d pay for “factory meat” by buying whole animals rather than prepackaged cuts. And those few extra dollars, instead of bankrolling the destructive practices of factory farming, stay in the neighborhood.
“Those dollars go to pay Michael and Max to cut the meat up and our cooks to come up with creative things to do with the less-sellable cuts,” Porter says. “All that money stays in North Park, and the rest of it goes to this family farmer in, say, Edna, California, or State Center, Iowa, who’s been on the land for 100 years and is raising pigs outdoors, and maybe the kids are helping out.”
Judging by the Linkery’s often-packed dining room, more and more local consumers recognize the value in what Porter is doing. Still, his margins remain thin—but that's not uncommon for new eateries. “Everybody we come in contact with loses money, including us,” he says. “We lose far less money than we used to, though, so it feels like success.”
In addition to the expense, farm-to-table takes time. Traditional suppliers offer restaurants the ease of one-stop shopping, while contracting with individual farmers takes considerably more work. Rimel still uses conventional produce suppliers, and until late last year even Porter was buying 15-20 percent of his produce from “the grid.” (Before that point, the only 100 percent farm-to-table operation in our area was Laja, a destination restaurant east of Ensenada serving only what is grown in its own garden or on nearby farms and vineyards. Chef Jair Tellez is collaborating with Porter on the menu for El Take It Easy, a small-plates, farm-to-table eatery opening in North Park later this year.)
Time and economics will tell whether farm-to-table is here to stay or just another passing trend. “If gas stays cheap, we might just be a flash in the pan,” Porter says, referring to the industrial food system’s dependence on petroleum. “But because of the law of finite resources, at some point there’ll be no choice but to do things the right way. Hopefully we’re showing that it can be fun and delicious and not a terrible burden, and only a little more expensive.
“In the end,” he says, “we’re either doing a pilot program for when we have to live this way, or we’re playing in a sandbox.”
Where to Go
Virtually no restaurant in San Diego is yet 100 percent farm-to-table, but a growing number are using more local and/or independently farmed products. Some place emphasis on local produce, others on sustainable seafood and pastured meats. For details, check the menu or ask the server or chef.
Alchemy: 1503 30th Street, South Park, 619-255-0616, alchemysandiego.com
A.R. Valentien: 11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, 858-453-4420, arvalentien.com
Blue Water Grill: 3667 India Street, South Mission Hills, 619-497-0914, bluewater.sandiegan.com
Burger Lounge: various locations, burgerlounge.com
El Take It Easy: (opening summer/fall 2010), 3926 30th Street, North Park
George’s at the Cove: 1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-454-4244, georgesatthecove.com
Jsix: 616 J Street, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-531-8744, jsixrestaurant.com
1540 Camino del Mar,
Del Mar, 858-793-6460, laubergedelmar.com
Laja: Tecate Cove Road, KM 83, Tecate-Ensenada Highway, Guadalupe Valley, Baja California, Mexico, 011-52-
The Linkery: 3794 30th Street, North Park, 619-255-8778, thelinkery.com
Market: 3702 Via de la Valle, Del Mar, 858-523-0007, marketdelmar.com
Mille Fleurs: 6009 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe, 858-756-3085, millefleurs.com
Mistral: 4000 Coronado Bay Road, Coronado, 619-424-4477, loewshotels.com
O’Brother’s Burgers: 188 Horton Plaza, downtown, 619-615-0909, obrothersburgers.com
Pamplemousse grille: 514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach, 858-792-9090, pgrille.com
Ritual Tavern: 4095 30th Street, North Park, 619-283-1720, ritualtavern.com
Sea Rocket Bistro:
3382 30th Street, North
Park, 619-255-7049, searocketbistro.com
Spread: 2879 University Avenue, North Park,
Stingaree: 454 Sixth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-544-9500, stingsandiego.com
Stone World Bistro: 1999 Citracado Parkway, Escondido, 760-294-7866, stonebrew.com
2400 Historic Decatur Road, Liberty Station, Point Loma,
Zenbu: 2003 San Elijo Ave., Cardiff by the Sea, 760-633-2223; 7660 Fay Avenue,
La Jolla, 858-454-4540, rimelsrestaurants.com