Farmer Meets Chef

Nobu-WatermelonThey met, appropriately enough, at a farmers’ market. The year was 2002. Since then these two humble men, a farmer and a chef, have forged a solid relationship built on a mutual respect for the earth and the bounties it brings. Today, the farmer grows specific crops for the chef, and the beneficiaries are the chef and his patrons.

Chef Nobuo Fukuda was introduced to farmer Bob McClendon of McClendon’s Select, a 25-acre organic farm in Peoria, by another well-known valley chef, Chris Bianco (of Pizzeria Bianco and Pane Bianco). Bianco had the last of McClendon’s Meyer lemon crop in his hands, and insisted that Fukuda take them. Impressed with the quality (not to mention the rarity) of the locally grown Meyer lemons, Fukuda began stopping by McClendon’s stall every week, hand picking produce for his nationally recognized restaurant.

The relationship took roots as the farmer and the chef talked shop each week, and soon McClendon realized he needed to dine at Sea Saw to see how Fukuda was incorporating the farm produce into his renowned “tapanese” menu. After a dinner “that blew me away,” McClendon recalls, he began quizzing Fukuda during his weekly market jaunts.

“I could see what he was trying to achieve on his plates, what he was trying to present, and I became fascinated. I started asking him what [produce] he would like to have locally.  That’s where the conversation started, and it goes on every week now,” McClendon said.

One week early on, Fukuda brought McClendon the juice of a yuzu, a small acidic citrus fruit native to China. A key component in Sea Saw’s menu, Fukuda was purchasing the juice from a supplier because he had no source for fresh yuzu. Intrigued, McClendon decided to plant one yuzu tree. Four years and ten trees later, McClendon now supplies Fukuda with all the fresh yuzu fruit he can use. Fukuda now uses the fresh yuzu juice in a number of sauces throughout his menu, including the flavored oil for the White Fish Carpaccio. Thanks to McClendon, he even has fresh yuzu zest to sprinkle over dishes like Sinshu Mushi, a steamed sea bass with green tea soba noodles.

McClendon recalls a summer day when Fukuda visited the farm and bit into a sun-ripened Early Girl tomato. Professing it was the best tomato he had ever tasted, he told the farmer about an idea for a tomato dessert. McClendon thought he was nuts, but he and his wife drove across town to sample the final result at Sea Saw. After tasting the sublime concoction of chilled tomato drizzled with McClendon’s citrus honey, dusted with sansho (a Japanese pepper), and served with a Meyer lemon sorbet, McClendon figured that no Fukuda request was too outlandish.

The Journey Begins

Sourcing ingredients for Fukuda sent McClendon into research mode. Lots of internet searches and trips to the library to pore through books provided McClendon with a crash course on Asian ingredients. He located a Japanese seed company with an office in Oakland, California. Seeds with names that once were difficult to pronounce now flourish in McClendon’s fields and green houses.

The produce that McClendon grows specifically for Fukuda are either micro greens or micro root vegetables. Micro greens are newly germinated greens (think sprouts), just barely going into the first leaf stage. The tiny greens are harvested at 3/4 to 1-inch tall, and then snipped by hand with scissors. The greens could grow to full maturity, but Fukuda is interested in the delicate taste, texture, and appearance of these minuscule greens.

Amaranth, radish, and beet are common micro greens for many avant-garde chefs, but for Fukuda, McClendon also grows Komatsuna (Japanese mustard greens) and Shungiku (chrysanthemum greens). Fukuda doesn’t just want these diminutive sprouts because they are different. Each plays a pivotal role in the flavor profile of his dishes. He pairs Komatsuna with a few sashimi-style dishes on his tasting menu, and feels the spicy flavor enhances the taste experience. He pairs Shungiku’s strong flavor with a sea bass trio in restrained amounts, as an accent to the mild-tasting bass. “Shungiku is very powerful, slightly bitter,” Fukuda says. “It can cut through the fatty, rich meats to provide a nice contrast.”

Micro “veggies” are harvested as soon as they are discernable as whatever vegetable they represent. For example, a French Breakfast Radish first produces sprouts just days after planting, and in a couple of weeks, as soon as it shows a red top and white bottom, it’s plucked from the earth. In micro form, it’s just a slither of a radish, as thin as a toothpick. The same is true for micro carrots and turnips. Fukuda uses a combination of micro turnips, radishes, and carrots with his version of Shabu Shabu (a dish that allows the diner to cook raw meat or fish in a pot of simmering broth at the table). He uses three kinds of micro beets along with micro carrots in a stew-like Oxtail plate, thinking vegetables go naturally with stew. On at Sea Saw, it’s not just any old stew, and these are no ordinary vegetables.

McClendon calls what he does for Fukuda experiments. “Some work, some don’t,” he jokes, with Fukuda laughing in agreement. Simultaneously, they both blurt out “Myoga.” A Japanese rhizome, myoga is a slender shoot, tasting similar to a cross between a shallot and young ginger. Fukuda says it grows like crazy in Japan, but it can’t take the Arizona dry heat. McClendon was able to produce one tiny shoot, which Fukuda relished, before the plant collapsed from heat exhaustion. It’s an experiment that won’t be repeated, according to McClendon.

Other experiments have been more successful, including micro celery, although at first it wasn’t so promising. “Celery is a winter vegetable, and we planted it too early,” McClendon said. “We took another stab at it and were more successful once the weather cooled.” It still takes longer to germinate than other micro greens, but for Fukuda, it is worth it.

How do all of these micro greens and micro veggies translate back at Sea Saw? Visually, they fit with the artistic, minimalist dishes Fukuda presents. But he wants diners to eat them with the fish and meat he pairs them with, to provide a totally balanced taste experience. He spends an inordinate amount of time crafting the flavor balance and contrast between the proteins and accoutrements on the plate.

Fukuda is baffled when some dinners devour the main ingredient, but leave the micro greens and vegetables alone. Still, he can’t fault the diners for thinking the garnishes are just for visual appeal, as he strives for strikingly creative presentation. “It is our job to explain to diners that everything is edible, and that everything is meant to be eaten,” he said. “We need to educate our customers about what is on the plate, and where it came from.”

A Life in the Day

A typical week for Fukuda begins with a visit to McClendon’s farm. He even took his cooks to the farm so that they could see where and how the specialized crops are grown and harvested. For Fukuda, shopping for his ingredients is just as important as crafting the final dishes in the restaurant. “To me, it is a luxury to buy something direct from a farmer. The ingredients are better because I choose them,” he says. His relationship with McClendon allows him to enhance his cuisine with fresh-from-the-farm, quality ingredients that at one time were only available, if at all, from out of state producers.

McClendon credits his relationship with Fukuda (and Bianco) for changing the direction of his farming operation. Instead of hauling his fresh and organic produce to four weekly farmers’ markets around the valley, McClendon now participates in only the Town & Country Farmers’ Market, with the bulk of his efforts focused on handcrafting produce orders for the Valley’s top chefs. Because of the working nature of his farm, it is not open to the public, but you can always find him at the Wednesday market, October 1 through June 1, helping customers navigate his abundant produce bins.

A typical week for McClendon starts with writing restaurant orders on Sunday evening after the chefs call in their orders. Monday is harvest day, and by 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, his truck is loaded with custom orders to deliver to the chefs. Wednesday is spent at the farmers’ market, and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are filled with planting, making repairs, and more harvesting. Starting at 4:30 every morning and working until 11 p.m. might make a normal person cranky, or at least in need of a nap. Does McClendon take naps to make it through the grueling days? “Waking up is bad enough, I don’t want to do it twice a day,” McClendon quips.

McClendon thrives on the challenges Fukuda presents by requesting these exotic ingredients, and Fukuda is grateful to have a farmer who is game for experimentation.  A farmer and a chef, both driven by a desire to be the best they can be – a match made with a little help from Mother Nature.

(This article first appeared in Edible Phoenix)

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