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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
GREEN GODDESS: Lindencroft Farm's Linda Butler, along with her husband, Steve, inspires cultlike devotion in a handful of local chefs.

Gourmet Groundswell

With a bumper crop of boutique farms and a growing culinary talent pool, Santa Cruz is at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement

By Christina Waters

SANTA CRUZ chefs are fiercely devoted to local, fresh, organic produce for their menus. And while that sort of culinary pickiness might challenge cooks in other parts of the country, our restaurants are surrounded by a bounty of organic growers who have cultivated close relationships with chefs over the years. Farm-to-table isn't just another culinary fad here. It's a way of life.The hand-raised lamb and artisanal cheeses from chef/rancher Rebecca King may be found on Beverlie Terra's Chaminade menus. Fogline Farm, high above Soquel, supplies free-range and pastured chicken and pork to a select circle of Santa Cruz chefs. Some names—Dirty Girl, Lindencroft, Freewheelin', Blue Heron—punctuate almost any conversation involving top local chefs.Brad Briske at Main Street Garden Café is one of the lucky chefs, who can walk into his own organic kitchen garden behind the restaurant and pick fresh tomatoes, herbs, zucchini blossoms and specialty items throughout the year. Briske, long a devotee of small local growers, lays it out. "Currently half our produce is supplied by Lindencroft Farm, or one of the many farmers market growers," he says. "Route One, Dirty Girl, Live Earth and Freewheelin' are my favorites." If it's not from his garden or one of these organic farms, he says, "it's not on the menu." Briske also sources local ranchers for pastured pigs, rabbits and ducks so that he can create his own cured meat specialties.

Katherine Stern, chef at La Posta and veteran of a two-star Michelin kitchen in Montemerano, Italy, looks to Blue Heron Farms for lettuces and Fogline Farms for chickens. She also works closely with growers to fuel her Italian-influenced menu with rare and intriguing ingredients. "Route One Farms is nice enough to pick nettles for me," she says, "and we use Freewheelin' Farms and Four Sisters for herbs, purslane and arugula, and a local mushroom forager."

Nestled between Santa Cruz and Davenport, Freewheelin' Farm is one of chef Charlie Parker's key sources of fog-loving crops, such as arugula, chard, collards, kale, broccoli, spinach, strawberries, leeks and baby beets. The celebrated 8 acres just north of town were pioneered five years ago by retro-growers Kirstin Yogg, Amy Courtney and Darryl Wong, who currently serve such dining rooms as La Posta, Oswald, Avanti and Gabriella in addition to Parker's Cellar Door, which was recently featured in a New York Times article exploring the chef's meticulous attention to local ingredients.

The Lindencroft Mystique

Linda Butler of Ben Lomond's 1 1/2-acre Lindencroft Farm admits that developing close and continuing relationships with specific restaurants works strategically for the farm she runs with her husband, Steve. "It's really good for a small farm like ours, because we don't do the farmers markets," she says. In addition to Briske at Main Street, Butler supplies Parker and Tim Edmunds at Davenport Roadhouse. "We grow a huge variety of vegetables," she says. "Right now the big thing is peppers. We have 60 different kinds of heirloom peppers."Butler continues to supply renowned seasonal items to Sean Baker, former chef of Gabriella, now at Berkeley's Gather. Illustrating the delivery process, Butler explains, "I call and tell him what I've got, and they tell me what they need. Sometimes, since I know what he likes to work with, I just try to decide the amounts he might need. And I try to vary the items so he can have a choice of special items."Artisan of handmade cured sausages and salami Chris La Veque has known the Butlers since childhood. "I use only their chiles and herbs—thyme, oregano, sage, tarragon. They're the most gorgeous things I ever saw," he says. La Veque, a local legend for his intensely flavored sausages made from locally sourced, pastured pigs, cows, goats and lambs, believes that "nothing can compare with Lindencroft's fresh harvests. The chiles are absolutely amazing."

Playing Dirty

Dirty Girl Farm's Joe Schirmer is another favorite of Santa Cruz and Bay Area chefs. Famed for richly flavored dry-farmed tomatoes, small tender root crops and impeccable heirloom shelling beans, Schirmer's sunny La Selva fields supply scores of top restaurants and a dozen farmers markets. "My sales manager gets texts, phone calls and emails constantly—about 40 to 50 orders each week from restaurants alone," Schirmer says.Schirmer has groomed his relationships with his clients. "I know who loves the baby carrots, and I pick specifically for those restaurants when we go to the markets." There the orders are picked up for menus throughout the week. "They either call up or we just pick for them according to what they've liked in the past. We do eight farmers markets, so they can phone in and we'll have it waiting for them."

Each restaurant has its own style of access, Schirmer says. "Some need deliveries, some love coming to the market and seeing what's fresh and new. Ben Sims from Avanti always comes to the market to see the produce. Brad Briske is another one who checks out our harvests, plus Damani Thomas from Oswald, Katherine Stern from La Posta and Santos Majano from Soif."

Love Apples and More

Cynthia Sandberg, whose biodynamic Love Apple Farm annually offers seedling sales of over 100 heirloom tomato varieties, embarked on a rare alliance several years ago. She is the primary restaurant garden for Manresa, the two-star Michelin restaurant in Los Gatos fueled by celebrated Santa Cruz-based chef David Kinch. A recent move of the farm to be closer to the restaurant—15 minutes away—is still a work in progress. "We have been busy these last five months terracing, doing repairs, constructing fences, stairs between terraces, garden bed building and double-digging," she says. "We just started planting out winter veggies a couple of weeks ago."

The new acres will allow Sandberg to fine-tune her harvests to Kinch's demanding specifications. "We've got the space to install a permanent large asparagus bed, many fruit trees, many different types of berries, even meat animals such as pigs, lambs, goats and chickens. We now have three new dairy goats and are learning how to create chèvre for him."

Sandberg supplies Kinch with close to 10 dozen eggs a week from her biodynamic farm. And she's willing to take on strange requests, such as Kinch's new favorite, the rare Litchi, a sister of the tomato that Sandberg says "is tomatillo-esque in that it has a husk, but it turns red when ripe rather than green."

Such close relationships make the difference on Santa Cruz restaurant tables, which is why you can always find Avanti chef Ben Sims, right at opening time, at the Westside Farmers Market. Last week he was selecting from a huge table of dry-farmed tomatoes. "I only use Dirty Girl tomatoes for my sauces," he said with a grin as we both reached for the same crimson orb.

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