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Alice in Wonderland

The mama-san of California cuisine thanks heaven for the day Bob Cannard got interested in the earth

By Christina Waters

It was really my dad who organized the search," says Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters of the events that brought Bob Cannard to her kitchen. "My father got a list of all the organic farms that were within one hour of the doors of the restaurant. After visiting 10 farms, he narrowed it down to three, and we chose Bob. My father thought Bob was just crazy enough to get along with us," she laughs. "We met and that was the beginning of this long, nine-year relationship."

Cannard is one of over a dozen area growers who fuel the kitchen of California cuisine's birthplace. "He's really the only one that we have this particular kind of relationship with," Waters explains. "We suggest things to plant, we feedback information, we have a dialogue. And we take our compost up, and vegetables back down here--we think of it as our farm, in a way."

The Sonoma farmer is special, Waters thinks, "because he believes in the food the way that we believe in it--that this food has energy and life in it. He wants things to be consumed within hours of when they're picked. And we do, too."

And Cannard woos Waters with special touches. "He'll send us fig leaves and grape leaves sometimes. Or he'll send cherries still on the branch. You can't ever get that," she says admiringly. "This positive thing can also be a negative thing. Sometimes the produce is irregular--they're covered with dirt, or they're entangled. But you accept that as well, because you suddenly get something like little tiny watercress you can't get anywhere else.

"He is an extraordinary person," Waters continues. "He's eccentric and he has his own opinions about how things should be or not be and sometimes those don't jibe with people."

What does jibe are Cannard's results, of which Alice Waters has some favorites: "These radicchios I'm unpacking right now. All different varieties, so many colors. They look like flowers and they make the most beautiful salad I've ever seen. And he does fantastic turnips, just fantastic turnips. Great carrots. Wonderful broccoli. I never liked broccoli until I had Bob's. I wish we had a restaurant right next door to him."

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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