Farm to Menu
On a day so picture-perfect it's almost a cliché, chef Gabe Garcia and grower Dave Pommer wind their way through acres of vegetables and fruit trees in Santa Paula. From where these two friends and business associates stand, it's shades of green as far as the eye can see, bordered only by mountains and a blue, cloudless sky.
Every week or so, Garcia, executive chef of Tierra Sur at Herzog Wine Cellars (TierraSurAtHerzog.com) in Oxnard, heads to the property Pommer tends for a sneak peak at what will be on the restaurant's menu.
"It's revitalizing," Garcia says, squinting under his burgundy baseball cap and taking in the scene. "It's my secret hideaway," he adds, smiling.
Pommer, who has a background in citrus and avocado management, grows three to 10 acres of crops on the property, depending on the season. Through his DP Produce business, he grows squash, tomatoes, green beans, arugula, carrots, chard, kale and more; many are heirlooms or unusual varieties. All are in high demand by restaurants and caterers.
The two men, who bonded over a shared love of vintage Volkswagens, have known each other about six years. Garcia, then a line cook, sought out Pommer after he arrived at Tierra Sur in a VW Thing to deliver produce to the restaurant. Garcia loved Pommer's eclectic taste in vehicles and his produce.
He started visiting the Santa Paula property with then-executive chef Todd Aarons and discovered a world of unfamiliar – yet delicious – vegetables. From the start, as they walked the rows, Pommer plucked produce and had Garcia sample it.
"This guy," says Garcia, cocking his head toward the T-shirt-clad Pommer, "taught me when it's right, it's right." Meaning, he says, crops only can be harvested when they're fully ripe – and not any time before, even if the timing doesn't match the menu's demand.
On this day, they stop at the new-to-market purple Shiraz pea pods clinging to lines strung between wooden posts. Bending down, Pommer searches among the vines for the few eggplant-colored pods left at the end of the season. As Garcia cradles them in his palm, he says the pea pods are simply sautéed at the restaurant to highlight their freshness and color. (If the peas are blanched, they lose their striking hue.)
Garcia brings his line cooks to the property two to three times a year to show them the connection between what they're cooking and where it came from. There's a responsibility to honor what Pommer has spent so much time and energy tending: "We can't mess up his hard work," Garcia says.
Pommer and Garcia continue, encountering several types of artichokes, kales, lettuces, onions, spouted broccoli, Swiss chard. . .
They've been out here almost two hours, walking, talking, exploring, tasting.
Circling back to the property's edge, Garcia pays Pommer the highest compliment – he credits the grower with unleashing his passion as a chef.
The two men then climb into "The Rocket," Pommer's 1968 VW bus, and head off to another property down the road.