The fig had been picked by hand from a 30-year-old tree the day before it arrived on my plate. Sliced in half, it was carefully topped with a small dollop of Humboldt Fog goat cheese, toasted walnuts and a green marigold leaf.
Hours before, the chef and his team had filled a Toyota Tundra with flats of the dark purple Mission figs -- as well as stone fruit, Italian pears, blackberries and peaches -- from K and J Orchard's stand at the Ferry Plaza farmers market in San Francisco. Early every Saturday morning, the cooks scour the market for the best produce, with the farmers ultimately dictating that night's menu.
It is this symbiotic, sacred relationship between kitchen and farm that the Michelin-starred Madera at the Rosewood hotel in Menlo Park aims to elevate with a new monthly dinner series that launched in June. Each month, the chef invites one of the farms that supplies the restaurant to a communal dinner that aims to demystify and honor the labor that goes into the food.
"It's a celebration of the relationship between chef and farmer," Madera's executive chef, Reylon Agustin, told 13 people gathered in a private dining room for the K and J Orchards dinner on July 28. "Tonight we're in casual conversation about the struggles and the triumphs that we go through on a weekly basis and season to season."
Even in the ever-enlightened Bay Area, it's easy to forget the enormous effort that it takes to grow and serve the food our on plates. We don't hear about how unseasonably cold weather froze this year's apricot blossoms or the painstaking "succession planning" necessary to keep a farm going -- planting hundreds or thousands of new trees each year, investing in new varieties or replacing older trees. We don't know that the figs weren't planned for that night's menu, but added at the last minute because they were just too good to pass up.
Sitting side by side with the people who grew and cooked your food, you hear these stories. It's impossible not to have a deeper appreciation for their work.
Over kampachi, duck liver mousse and fermented peaches, Boonie Deasy of K and J Orchards told the story of her farm. Her father, a University of California pomologist (a botany specialty focusing on fruit) who wrote books about Asian pear propagation, met her mother, a registered nurse from Thailand who owned a small farm in Yuba City, north of Sacramento. They fell in love and in 1990 started K and J Orchards on a 20-acre property in Winters, just outside of Davis.
Deasy has since taken over the farm with her husband, Tim. They oversee about 10 full-time and 30 seasonal workers across both farm properties.
More than 200 Bay Area restaurants -- including the likes of The French Laundry, Michael Mina and Manresa -- rely on them for pristine cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, pluots, plums, figs, Asian pears, apples, persimmons, mandarin oranges and walnuts. Madera has sourced produce from K and J Orchards since opening nine years ago.
Deasy and her husband drive hundreds of miles every week to deliver their produce to restaurants and sell it at farmers markets, including in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Every piece of fruit is hand-picked and hand-sorted, carefully vetted for quality.
"The amount of work that goes into farming is something that is just lost," Agustin said. "Even as a young cook, I was largely unaware of how much effort goes into it."
At the dinner, Deasy and her husband marveled at the culinary team's treatment of their fruit: pears poached in white wine, cinnamon, vanilla bean and chili flakes, served with duck liver mousse; blackberries cooked down to make a lacquer for smoked squab; peaches and plums transformed into an ethereal gazpacho, poured table-side over slices of kampachi.
The dinner also breaks down the walls between diner and chef. Over three hours and five courses, Agustin talked openly about why he became a chef, his upbringing, Anthony Bourdain-esque descriptions of the days when chefs drank gin-and-tonics out of plastic quart containers, and where he eats on his days off.
Agustin grew up baking with his Filipino grandmothers; an early culinary triumph was when he finally got a recipe for leche flan just right. He chose a career in the kitchen against the wishes of his family and went on to cook for Gordon Ramsay in London and Traci Des Jardins in San Francisco.
At Madera, he has focused on cultivating close relationships with a smaller number of growers, narrowing the number of farms the restaurant sources from to about 10. He brings his whole staff, both front and back of house, on farm visits. Anyone who wants to go to a ranch to see a slaughter just has to ask.
"Being a chef now, it's easier in a lot of aspects and harder in a lot of aspects. Everything is at our fingertips. We can order from any corner of the world and procure whatever we want to, the best of everything or the most manicured of something," Agustin said. "But at one point as a chef you have to question if that's the right culture to adopt."
The dinner may inspire diners to ask themselves the same question. While not everyone can afford the dinner (it costs $165 per person, including wine pairings but not tax and gratuity), most of us can visit our local farmers market to support and get to know the people growing our food.
The dinners will run through November and resume again in the spring. For more information or to make a reservation, go to maderasandhill.com/farm-dinner or call 650-561-1528.