I like to tell people that I grew up on a farm, and being from Missouri, where most people think that that's all there is, it's easy to get by without an explanation. While I didn't actually grow up on a farm, my memories of spending summers on my grandparents farm are so vivid, it's easy to also deceive myself.
I remember walking out into the tomato patch with my grandpa and a salt and pepper shaker, him teaching me about finding a ripe tomato, plucking it off the vine and gently seasoning each delicious bite. I remember how magical it was that the plants produced this delectable, juicy, sweet and sour fruit that couldn't have been more perfect warmed from the sun.
I remember digging up potatoes with my bare hands, like a treasure hunt, and finding each one more exciting than the last. I remember picking blackberries for hours with my grandma, precariously dangling from a ladder over a massive wild blackberry bush. Every few days we could pick several gallons of blackberries, and with those she would make blackberry pies for us and for the neighbors, as well as putting some blackberries aside in the freezer for a bright treat when winter came.
I remember the *crack* of a watermelon being opened on the picnic table in the garden, and just how sweet and juicy that fruit can be when its only transportation is about fifteen feet through the yard in my uncle's hands. I remember watching my grandma pull an ear of corn off a stalk, roughly peeling back the husk and taking an inquisitive bite, to see if the corn was ready to be harvested. It never seemed like it was quite sweet enough for her.
I could go on and on about shucking peas and corn, picking mulberries from the roof of grandpa's workshop, building forts in the cornfield, making tunnels through the raspberry patch, learning about peppers and pumpkins, picking plums and peaches, chasing chickens and collecting eggs hidden under a warm chicken, but then I might never get to the meat of my story.
Apart from a brief stint working at a magazine in New York, all I've ever done is cook. Starting at fourteen in a pasta shop down the road from my house, I've worked in some very fancy and some not quite so fancy restaurants. I've made dishes that I've been incredibly proud of and I've put together some things that I thought were going to be delicious and in the end were barely edible. Finally, after working in kitchens of all shapes and sizes, spending a little time as a server and learning about wine, I decided a couple of years ago that I needed to start my own restaurant. But not just any restaurant, a restaurant with a meaningful connection to a farm. One in which a guest could take a stroll through the tomato patch and then sit down to eat a sun-warmed tomato salad with a simple shaker of salt and pepper. When the process started, I could feel that dream so viscerally, I could almost taste it. Then, I started looking for properties.
It turns out, land with the correct zoning in the Sonoma County area that is in my price range is only slightly more rare than a rainbow painted unicorn. At first I thought that I just wasn't putting enough effort into finding it. So I quit my job in order to dive head on into the search. I expanded from Sonoma County to Napa County and Marin County and Solano County and Santa Cruz County. I almost bought a noncommercial zoned property thinking that if I just begged for long and hard enough to the right people, then surely I could get it rezoned. Then CalTrans stepped in and said that having a restaurant in that particular spot would require a wider highway, which would be something I'd have to pay for. Widening a highway, as you might imagine, is not cheap. It was discouraging to say the least. And in the meantime, not cooking or being around food was starting to wear on me.
After nearly a year of not working, I jumped back into kitchens, spending just a couple of weeks in each spot, hoping to recapture the excitement of learning about food. I spent some time at Trou Normand, Ichi Sushi, Tartine Bakery and Petit Crenn. Then one fateful night at work, my partner came in to sit at the bar to wait for me to get off, and struck up a conversation with the person next to her. She told her of how frustrating it was that we couldn't find any acreage in Sonoma County, to which the, shall we say, 'angel' responded, "I know of someone who has a place in Sonoma that you could rent." Hold the phone, what? And it was just, as they say, "that easy." Six weeks later we were packing up a uHaul and moving into a four acre property. The one catch - noncommercial zoning. There will be no restaurant here. But, it's one step closer in the right direction, which at this point, is about as much as I can hope for. This is not to say, this isn't super exciting. I'm growing things! I'm going to have people out to the farm to eat some of these things! My dream of a stroll through the garden to have a look at the tomatoes, then sitting down to a sun-warmed tomato salad is achievable. It's just not exactly the same vision.
What version of that vision this place will turn out to be remains to be seen.