The simply named "early summer vegetables" recently offered at Forage, a new eatery in Los Angeles's hip Silver Lake neighborhood, was a crisp, fresh tribute to the area's bounty of locally grown produce. The dish featured blue lake beans from Tamai Farms in Oxnard, summer squash from Santa Paula's Coastal Organics, and the most local of all, a blanket of bright yellow sweet corn grown in a backyard in the nearby Highland Park neighborhood.
In a town where you can't swing a reusable canvas shopping bag without hitting a restaurant touting its locavore credentials, Forage and its talented young chef, Jason Kim, have managed to take the concept of "locally grown" to a new extreme. The restaurant's Home Growers Circle allows Los Angeles residents to trade produce from their backyard plots in exchange for credits at the popular restaurant.
When Kim, who honed his chops as sous chef at the acclaimed Lucques restaurant, opened Forage in January, he knew he wanted to try to take advantage of the fecundity of the city's backyards.
"I had a friend who grew stuff just for himself and ended up having tons of produce from this small garden," Kim recalls. "He couldn't eat it. I thought that would be cool if there were a lot of other people like him."
And so Kim put out an experimental call to neighborhood gardeners, requesting that they bring in any surplus produce from their backyards.
Since it was the height of citrus season, the two or three growers who responded in those early weeks brought a mix of blood oranges, tangelos, and lemons, plucked from the trees that are ubiquitous throughout the city. As the word spread, the number of growers quickly ballooned to 15, whose harvests revealed the rapidly changing growing season.
"Other stuff started coming in," Kim says. "Fava beans, broccoli, mustard greens. Some stuff that I'd never seen before." One Sunday, a month after the project's launch, he received a record 300 pounds of produce, all from amateur backyard gardeners.
For the growers, the program offered a home for excess crops, such as those grown by Lewis Perkins, a financial planner who, on a quiet residential street in Santa Monica, has created a tropical secret garden tucked away on the 7500 square feet that make up his front and back yards. With the help of his girlfriend, Tara Fass, Perkins has cultivated a miraculous array of exotic fruits like black and white sapote, Afghan mulberry, six varieties of guava, and even coffee. But before he discovered the Forage program, much of the produce went to waste.
"It broke my heart to see ripe fruit drop," says Fass, who works as a marriage counselor. "I kept seeing this kind of massacre with so much fruit on the ground." Though Fass and Perkins gave away fruit by the bag to clients, friends, and neighbors, there was always a surplus. "You can only make so many smoothies and pies," Fass says.
"When I heard about Forage, I said to Lewis, you gotta see this," she adds. "We had this huge tangerine crop."
Those tangerines made it onto the Forage menu as agua fresca, and blossoms from their pineapple guava bush were candied and used to decorate cakes.
Because this type of extreme local sourcing is so unusual, there was little precedent to look to.
"Other customers were shocked at first," Kim admits. "They couldn't believe what they were eating was grown in Echo Park." But when they tasted it, he says, those doubts were quickly allayed. "The stuff growing in backyards is good stuff. It's better than the stuff at [local supermarket] Vons."
With so much confidence in these growers' produce, Kim listed them on chalkboards in Forage's dining room, alongside the big-name farms from which the restaurant also sourced its produce. Images of the home growers, also referred to as "foragers," were featured on the restaurant's website. Buzz about the hyper-local menu spread, eventually catching the attention of the county health department.
In April, Kim was instructed to stop taking produce from home growers. "We were not allowed to accept things from 'unapproved sources,'" Kim says. "People's backyards were not allowed." He was told that these unlicensed growers represented a liability if a customer were to become ill.