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.
And so for several months, the program was halted, as Kim and the growers searched to find a way to reinstate the program. Because this type of extreme local sourcing is so unusual, there was little precedent to look to. The Food and Flowers Freedom Act, recently passed by the city council, offered some hope, as it allows home growers to sell their produce directly to the public, but it didn't address the "approved growers" concern when it came to serving homegrown produce at restaurants.
Ultimately, Kim and the Forage team learned that the backyard gardeners could actually be licensed through the same system that allows traditional farmers to sell at farmers' markets. By paying a $63 fee and undergoing an inspection, the home growers could receive Certified Producer's Certificates from the county agricultural commission, clearing them to sell their produce to restaurants and markets.
The foragers' gardens were inspected, fees were paid, and this month the program re-launched with five certified home growers. Forage is planning to expand the circle to 10 by August, selecting growers from an online application process. Kim stresses that the produce he uses from the home growers receives the same exacting scrutiny as the items he finds at the farmers' market. Together with the grower, he tastes every batch of produce before accepting it.
"These guys are all serious growers. They definitely know what they're doing," Kim says. "Now that they're approved, they're more legit. At the end of this, I hope they don't just sell to me. I hope that they're at farmers' markets so the whole city can tap into urban-grown produce. This is a whole new avenue to get food."
With this new legitimacy, some of the growers—like Warren and Lovejoy Ontiveros, who were part of the original program and among the first to receive certification—have begun to imagine a time when they might be able to use the food they grow as a livelihood. Although for now the couple sees their garden in Highland Park primarily as recreation, they hope it will ultimately become a profitable side business. "I'm practicing, sharpening my ax," says Warren Ontiveros, who works for the L.A. County Parks Department. "I'd like to see if we can make ourselves more self-reliant."
Beyond the publicity that Kim's well-reviewed restaurant brings to the concept of using urban farmed produce, it may be the initiative of growers like the Ontiveroses that solidifies this nascent trend into a lasting movement. In addition to Forage, the Ontiveros have shared squash blossoms from their garden with a neighborhood Salvadoran restaurant, which has also asked the couple to grow loroco, a flower currently only available frozen, which the restaurant uses to flavor its pupusas.
The ability of the backyard gardeners to grow small crops of plants not readily available from larger farms has been one of the advantages of the program for Kim, who says the growers have pushed him to work with unfamiliar ingredients.
Such was the case shortly after the re-launch of the program, when Fass brought in a basket of Surinam cherries, which resemble lightly ribbed, bright red cherry tomatoes.
"I've never seen anything like it in my life," said Kim, popping a crimson orb into his mouth. "They taste like a cross between a bell pepper and a berry."
And with that the chef's mind was whirring, as he considered how to incorporate the unusual fruit into a dish, debating between lightly pickling it or using it in a simple salad. He ultimately paired it with a recent harvest from the Ontiveroses' garden, creating a sweet and sour eggplant dish.
"No one in L.A. has those berries. I'm the only one who has them," Kim enthused. "Any chef would be happy to take them."