BY ANDREA THOMPSON / PHOTOGRAPHY BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM
Magpie's Chris Woo surveys the scene at Kingbird Farms.
The term "farm to fork" gets a lot of use around these parts, and may fall on weary ears as the term is often used. The good news is that it's more than just a marketing ploy. Many restaurants across the country are sincerely dedicated to bringing the freshest local products to their kitchens and dining rooms. Thanks to our great growing region, the restaurants in our area have some of the greatest opportunities to do so. It's encouraging that so many of our food businesses want to board this bandwagon.
The optimal translation of "farm to fork" is this: passionate chefs transforming the best ingredients they can find into creations that highlight both the integrity of the ingredient and the talent of the cooks. So many of our area's independently owned restaurants have been bringing supurb local ingredients to consumers' plates for many years, and it's exciting to see that list grow and expand as this movement catches on. A prime example of an early adopter is Magpie Café.
Not too many of the original restaurants dedicated to this idea are as spot-on with the movement and as affordable as Magpie Café.
Magpie Café's website describes it as offering "menus inspired by the fresh, high-quality ingredients available to us seasonally, with an emphasis on those from Northern California. Our food celebrates the idea that a meal should combine the simplicity of quality with the complexity of variety." This is the Sacramento restaurant you'd bring Michael Pollan to if you had the chance—the cuisine is focused on produce more than any other ingredient.
With so much concerted effort going into every bite, it may be a surprise to learn that Magpie's food is relatively affordable, yet that's just one reason to say that they make the right food, the right way. They buy local, organic and sustainable ingredients whenever possible. They prepare their carefully planned dishes with so much respect for the ingredients that each element is distinguishable, yet plays an important part in the larger dish. And they do keep the pricing realistic and approachable. All in all, they're socially conscious business people who deliver excellent meals.
If you ask chef Ed Roehr, who owns Magpie with his partner Janel Inouye, what makes the food taste so great, he's quick to credit the restaurant's culinary team and the farmers who grow the ingredients. Magpie now has three kitchen leads: Event Chef Chris Woo, who has been working there since it was simply a catering company; Lunch and Brunch Chef Matt Kramer and Dinner Chef Kelly Hogge.
Photo 1: Kingbird Farms' Mike Eaton and Magpie's event chef Chris Woo
Photo 2: Chef Kelly Hogge and Scrivner Hoppe-Glossner of Azolla Farms.
Photo 3: Dinner at Kingbird included polenta made from corn they grew.
Photo 4: Duck confit with greens from Azolla Farms.
For the more than 1,000 pounds of produce they buy weekly, the Magpie crew works closely with a handful of small farms in addition a larger, steadier supplier. Two of the smaller spots, Kingbird Farms in Galt and Azolla Farm in Pleasant Grove, have symbiotic relationships with the restaurant, and share in each other's successes.
Kingbird Farms is owned by Charity Kenyon and Mike Eaton, who had gardened for years before leaving their previous careers to become growers. When she was still practicing law, Charity had hired Magpie to cater events. They moved from Sacramento to a plot of farmland in Galt, and at first grew food as a hobby, donating the food they didn't eat to a local food bank. But as Mike dedicated himself to learning more about the various aspects of farming, they began to share some produce with Ed and Janel. The relationship with the restaurant grew from there.
Roehr likes to encourage the smaller farms. "If anyone comes in and has a small commercial 2- to 3-acre plot, we tell them to bring us whatever they want, we'll pay whatever price they think is fair. We know those little models are probably pretty wobbly. We feel pretty good about doing that, and we'll try to find innovative ways to use the product," he says.
That is exactly how Azolla Farms began their relationship with Magpie. Scrivner Hoppe-Glossner had been working frontof- the house positions in the Bay Area at Zuni Café and Chez Panisse for several years before starting his farm in Pleasant Grove. "My old business partner and I stopped by Magpie three years ago with samples of greens and sunchokes. We met Chef Kelly [Hogge], and he bought some stuff that day, right on the spot," he remembers.
Magpie owners Janel Inouye and Ed Roehr with their son Julian.
Hogge advised him what produce to grow. Certain items, such as celery, would be a waste of his time since it was so readily available. They both wanted to help preserve endangered foods, those that are listed in Slow Food's Ark of Taste catalog. "I want things you don't see often at all, that are really special. It gives me more reason to make cool things," Hogge says.
Kingbird Farms was already on board with Ark of Taste products as well, since Kenyon is currently a Slow Food governor, representing 15 chapters in the Central Valley. She explains, "If we want to be growing things that are really different and are Ark of Taste or heirloom, then there's only certain restaurants, very few, that are going to be interested in the small quantities."
She points out that a restaurant like Magpie has an important role in educating the public about seasonal produce, and encouraging them to try something that's different. She adds, "This is the place where you might have to ask 'what is that?' on the menu, but if we want to preserve biodiversity we need a place like Magpie to shine the light on the things that are really delicious."
Thankfully, Magpie's clientele seems to enjoy having their boundaries pushed. Hogge recalls making beef tongue for the first time four years ago. "I thought nobody would buy it, but within a week or two, people were asking for it. This is a great place to experiment."
The farmers can appreciate that willingness to try new things, as sometimes it means their product won't be wasted. Eaton remembers when Kingbird Farms' almonds were being eaten by woodpeckers, so they opted to harvest the almonds green, before the birds were interested. They sent them to Magpie, who in turn created a special: trout amandine with green garlic, green almonds and Meyer lemon zest. Eaton laughs, "It's a lot of work for a restaurateur to work with someone like us."
But Roehr believes that working with small farms keeps them in touch with what's important. "We need the inspiration, and the connection to the land. We have to have that reality check. If you order from someone who can give you pumpkin year round, you'll get product from very far away, out of season, and the quality will be worse."
Says Hogge, "We evolved the menu around what's in season, what's available and what's cool, not around protein at all. That's a second thought. More than anything we are produce-driven. We buy more produce than anyone in town."
Charity Kenyon of Kingbird Farms.
Indeed, it's not uncommon for the restaurant to receive over 1,000 pounds of produce each week. The small farms are often providing the most inspiring ingredients. Hoppe-Glossner of Azolla Farms says, "I told Kelly what we had for produce one week: [the greens] baby tatsoi, baby arugula and amara. He said to bring a case of each, and he made that into the duck dish for the week." When a farm is so small, harvests of any one ingredient can be short. The produce changes week to week. But at Magpie, the chefs can incorporate almost all that the farms grow into the menu.
Event Chef Chris Woo sums it up: "It's a team effort. Farmers are doing what they want to do, and it's up to us to transform it to something on the plate. They're going to grow it the right way—what's in season—we transform it and give that to our customer."
Roehr smiles, and adds that with the small farms rolling in each morning with their boxes of just-picked goods, "It's like the farmers market coming to us."