The Lettuce That Ate New York And The World
Walking toward me, a towheaded two-year old cherub boy balanced on her hip, was a tall, angular blonde woman wearing a nautical blue striped long sleeve t-shirt, khaki shorts, a floppy straw sun hat and rubber boots… The quintessential French California mash up. This, it turned out was her uniform. She was Andrea Crawford, backyard salad gardener for Chez Panisse who had several small plots of mesclun, Provençale style baby mixed salad greens, growing on Hearst Avenue in West Berkeley where I lived with Terrel and the kids. She stopped to introduce herself, and we realized we had met a few years before upstairs at the Chez, as it was called, where she had been a server and attended some of the Pacific Film Archive film dinners as waitress and as participant.
Andrea explained that Alice insisted on the freshest greens for her signature salad featured on the menu every night. (In an interview twenty years later for a book proposal I was writing on the history of salad Waters told me that she would be happy if the only thing she got credit for was reinventing and popularizing mesclun.) And the way to insure that supply was to have the greens grown in Berkeley. For a while that was a garden in Alice’s backyard, but the popularity of the restaurant outgrew that space and Andrea was charged with responsibility of expanding into other backyards. The salad was grown in the French intensive method with raised beds of composted soil covered with white pvc hoops and shade cloth to protect the delicate leaves from the noonday sun. Fifteen or twenty different greens, 2/3 sweet (bibb lettuce, red and green romaine, red and green oak, tango, red salad bowl, mache, tat soi, chervil, sorrel, orach, Mizuna, baby chard, baby spinach) and 1/3 bitter (field cress, sweet cress, arugula, radicchio, red treviso, frisee) were planted densely in distinct areas. The leaves were cut near the stem leaving enough to allow the plant to grow back. This is called cut and come again, and they did come again, up to four or five times before new plants took their place. Andrea would harvest in the morning before it got too warm, and take her ten or so pounds to the kitchen to be washed and refrigerated. In those days the price was something like fifteen dollars a pound and Andrea was able to cover her expenses with this small harvest for she lived on a sailboat, the Blue Nose, in the Berkeley Marina, with her sailor husband Denny and her two young kids, Elaf and Nate.
The backyard of the rambling Victorian house we were renting, a large unbroken space of about a quarter of an acre just off San Pablo avenue had been a vegetable garden under my amateur hand the year before, and I suggested to Andrea she might want to consider using it as she was running out of space once again. Chez Panisse was now part café/bistro and, at the height of its popularity, serving several hundred meals a day. Andrea jumped at the idea and our yard quickly became filled with raised beds of green and purple salad greens. And of course we had that wonderful salad for dinner every night.
Andrea realized that she couldn’t easily expand her business in the Bay Area because, as a member of the Chez Panisse extended family, it would have meant competing with her dearest friends. It occurred to her that Los Angeles had not yet really experienced the local ingredients movement, and that she might be able to create a dynamic produce company in Southern California. I encouraged her in this plan and wrote a letter of introduction/recommendation leveraging my modest fame as a cookbook author. Wolfgang Puck the Southern California king of New American Cuisine, whom I addressed, was quickly won over by Andrea’s direct no-nonsense approach, her ambition, her knowledge of food and gardening, and her Chez Panisse halo which she wore proudly. He immediately turned over all his salad orders to her, and the race was on to find the space to begin. Fortunately through a network of friends, including screenwriters we knew in Venice, she found backyards and set up shop. Her salads immediately were a huge success. Chefs were blown away. They had never seen anything like it. She had the first mixed baby lettuce salad in LA competing with romaine, butter lettuce and iceberg.
Puck asked her to come up with a special blend for his new Pan Asian restaurant, Chinois-En-Main, and brilliantly she invented a phosphorescent colored, tangy, exotic East West Mix made from spicy purple Osaka Mustard leaves, delicate baby Tat-Soi, resinous Shinguku, jagged Mizuna and dramatic Amaranth. It was unique and became a signature component of the menu.
The same year that Andrea and her family moved to Los Angeles, 1985, Terrel wrote a spec screenplay hoping to attract an agent. The script was optioned, she was signed by an agency, and we decided to move to Los Angeles the next year. By then Andrea had several new restaurants and once again was looking for more space. Fortunately the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had created a program to rent land at the foot of its large electric towers that ran through the city to nurseries. They maintained a narrow access road in the center of these plots that were about 50 yards wide and the rest was available for planting. Not realizing the value of the land — Andrea was the first to have a vegetable garden — they leased a five acre parcel off Ventura Boulevard in a luxurious neighborhood in Encino at the foot of Kenter Canyon for one thousand dollars a year. The farm paid the water bill for the drip irrigation, a few hundred dollars a month. Kenter Canyon Farms was born.
Andrea was very gracious in her appreciation of my introduction to Puck. She invited me to dinner at Spago as her guest, and I suggested that Ruth Reichl, who was the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic at time, join us. She called to book the table. None of her trademark disguises in this job, at least not at Spago. She wanted to see and be seen. We were given a power spot in the middle of the main room, surrounded by the likes of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Sidney Poitier, Joan Collins, Johnny Carson, Billy Wilder and Dan Akroyd. Mike Ovitz, a major industry power broker was introduced to us by Puck who hovered over the table bringing a seemingly endless parade of special dishes for Ruth to try, many involving caviar. Of course he toasted Andrea and her salad with a glass of champagne. Though Andrea was flattered, she took it all in stride, knowing that tomorrow she would be back at work in the garden
By the time I got around to contacting Andrea early in 1987, she was working with the cream of the new second wave of Los Angeles restaurants, (the first wave La Toque and Ma Maison having closed, Michael’s was still open) and the ones she didn’t supply wanted her product. Besides Spago and Chinoise, there was Michael’s, Italinesque Angeli, Fusion spots Chaya and Chaya Brasserie, nouvelle French L’Orangerie, beachy chic 72 Market Street and West Beach Café, classic Italian Valentino, celebrity driven Trump’s, Le Dome and Ivy, Mexican influenced City Café, Neo-German Rockenwagner, and the luxury resort the Bel Air Hotel as well as several Valley French restaurants. When I came on to run her crew and take care of the daily mix, Andrea became less involved with the garden and more concerned with the back office work. Denny had taken over her role as head gardener. My decent Spanish helped smooth things over with the crew of eight who had issues with immigration, drunkenness, family dramas in Mexico and, of course, pay. After a few years of working together they had become a tight knit family and welcomed the security, unusual in any agricultural job, especially one in the city.
I would arrive at around seven thirty in the morning, check the orders, assign the cutting by plant and quantity and then join them in the beds. It was all very low tech with the restaurant names and the number of boxes recorded on the answering machine from the night before and entered on a blackboard. We cut everything by hand, carefully, leaf by leaf, using scissors, and filled Styrofoam boxes that were placed in the shade of the packing shack when they were full. We were generally done by noon, three or four hundred pounds being a typical harvest. A large piece of shade cloth was laid out and the boxes of greens were emptied to form a giant mound according to the master recipe which varied slightly based on availability. After washing my hands, I would hand toss the mix for five minutes or so, and the team would fill each box with three pounds of mesclun. They were stacked six or seven high. Individual orders might include, besides mesclun, boxes of cooking greens such as baby spinach, arugula or radicchio, or baby red and green romaine for caesars. There were beautiful nasturtium and borage flowers in the mix and sold separately as garnish. And there were bags of cooking herbs including exotic basils and thymes.
Kenter Canyon Farm never bothered with organic certification but all the greens were grown organically with only compost as fertilizer and no toxic chemical sprays used ever.
The restaurants were on a very tight schedule to get ready for dinner because they often have nothing left in the walk-in from the night before knowing that new product was on the way. We spoiled them and they got used to being able to make us jump. I would deliver the boxes to the restaurant kitchens in the company Toyota van, a headlong dash across Los Angeles that ended around 4 in the afternoon. Spago had the largest order, often a dozen boxes or more. Their kitchen was always a zoo as the overworked staff struggled to keep up with their popularity. I kept the air conditioning running even when I parked because the blazing LA sun would have quickly wilted our delicate crop.
My favorite days were during the summer when my son, Beau, would come to work with me. He would read a book or play with legos in the shade until it was time to do the deliveries, which he loved because the cooks would give him amazing cookies at almost every stop. We had a little cheer: We would chant Angeli slowly three times and then yell out Petite Chaya loud and fast. We thought we were so cool.
At one point it occurred to me that it might be possible to ship the lettuce by Fedex to other cities using early morning courier service without refrigeration. Since the lettuce was unwashed and freshly cut, and because their cargo planes were generally kept below 50 degrees, and since the product was delivered by ten thirty am the next morning, chances were the product would arrive in good condition. I got a Zagat’s guide for New York and started calling around to see who I could interest.
The first chef I spoke to was Andre Soltner at Lutece. He was an institution, some say the first American super star chef, and one of the masters at adapting traditional haute French cuisine to the American sensibility. I was surprised that he took my call, but he told me he was always looking for new ingredients and he didn’t get many calls from California. After a thorough grilling on who we were, and how and what we were growing, he said he would be willing to try. We sent him a box and he immediately called to say that it was a perfect salad and that he wanted to place a weekly order of five boxes at forty five dollars for three pounds plus Fedex charges of more than twenty dollars.
Once Soltner ordered I used his name as I called around to the other restaurants. I used to laugh at myself in the field bent over cutting lettuce with one hand, giving instructions in Spanish to the crew, and holding the portable phone in the other talking to David Bouley at Bouley, Charlie Palmer at River Café, Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque, Thomas Keller at Rakel’s, Eberhardt Mueller at Le Bernardin, Jean George Von Gerichten at Lafayette, Barry Wine at Quilted Giraffe, David Waltuck at Chanterelle, Danny Meyer at Union Square Café, Jonathan Waxman at Jams, and Brendan Walsh at Arizona 206 who all become customers immediately as soon as they got a sample. Amazingly all the lettuce arrived at their kitchens ready to serve even during the heat of summer. I can’t remember a single box that was rejected. For more than two years Kenter Canyon Farm was the only game in New York, and the chefs happily paid what would now be considered truly outrageous prices for salad that was not even washed.
The relationship between Andrea and Denny had become increasingly tense despite their business success. Denny was passionate about his boat and sailing and his kids, the garden not so much. Andrea was totally focused on expanding the business and she began to see her husband as an impediment. One day they got into a screaming match in front of all of us and she left yelling back at him “It’s over. I am divorcing you. We are finished.” She sped away in a cloud of dust. Denny muttered something like “Women. She never understood me.” And that was it. We shrugged and went back to work. They separated soon after and never looked back. Eventually Denny got the five acres, changed the name to Maggie’s Farm, and Andrea went on, with her second husband, to own a much larger farm in Fillmore near Ventura.
About once a week we would be visited by “guests”, many of them farmers or wanna be farmers, who had heard about our garden from chefs, and wanted to see how we grew that perfect salad. We had managed to stay under the radar, no press, no interviews, but the Chez Panisse mystique and the originality of the product were its own publicity machine. We were doing everything possible to discourage competition, though we knew it would come eventually. And of course it did. Today spring mix is a several billion dollar business with commodity prices of $1.50/per pound to the farmer. Kenter Canyon Farms, with its twelve-month growing season, was grossing quite a bit more than half a million dollars a year on five acres, with minimal overhead, and the rest gross profit. Other than marijuana, as far as I know few agricultural ventures had ever paid anything close to that on a per acre basis.
Terrel had just moved to a new agency, a group called Bauer Bendek (Marty Bauer and Peter Benedek) that later became UTA. Peter invited Terrel and I to a Malibu beach house for dinner with the proviso that I was to bring the salad. I showed up with a three pound box for the six of us, and it was like I had offered them cocaine. I kept making salad and within a few minutes it was all gone. There were screams of delight and requests to deliver more to the office. Terrel changed the subject seeing that they thought of me as just a new staff member.
Much more fun were the monthly dinner parties organized by Andrea with her friends the Spago chefs Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton (who later created Campanile Restaurant and La Brea Bakery) as well as Henry Bean and Leora Barish, the screenwriters who had lent her their backyard. Andrea made simple French family style dishes and Silverton contributed the desserts. We brought the wine.
Andrea had paid me well to run the crew and do the marketing. I envisioned a different role for myself as a future partner. She had a wonderful sense of style and totally understood how to import the joie de vivre of Provence to Los Angeles. I thought the best way to leverage her gardening and design talents was to create a retail store in Beverly Hills that would sell the garden produce along with elements of the life style — Whole Foods meets The Gardener. For some reason Andrea thought wholesale was the way to go, and she didn’t take me up on the offer. With the door closed to a real role for me in her business, we parted on friendly terms.
Other growers such as Earthbound Farms and Todd Koons Organics (TKO) came along a few years later to mass merchandize organic baby lettuce and create the Salinas centered corporate salad industry we have today. But it was Andrea who, starting with Alice’s Chez Panisse recipe, really created the template mesclun salad that was original, beautiful and irresistible, winning over major chefs, developing interest and demand, and establishing the benchmark against which the current products pale in comparison. Both deserve the credit.