Sustainably sourced international cuisine is more diverse and plentiful than ever before in the Monterey Bay area
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
Ramin Movahedi didn’t learn the recipes that are neatly taped to the kitchen wall of his Monterey restaurant in culinary school, and he didn’t develop them at other restaurants. In fact, Movahedi—who moved to Carmel at age 20, after the 1978 Iranian Revolution and ensuing war tore apart his country—is a software engineer who had no restaurant experience at all before opening his Persian-influenced, vegetarian and organic Saffron Café last year. Instead, starting when they were engaged 26 years ago, he and his wife, Jill, collected the recipes from extended family members and practiced and refined them over the years as they prepared from-scratch meals each night for themselves and their two daughters at their Carmel Valley home.
The aim was always to make their fresh, light dips and bright, spice-infused stews as healthy and delicious as possible. But the idea of a restaurant came over time, as they struggled to find local restaurants that offered food that was as healthful as what they were cooking at home, and friends made sure they knew how delicious their cooking was: “Our guests started saying we really love your food! Make this for us! Make that for us!” Movahedi says, smiling with pride.
Fast forward to today, about two years after opening its doors, and Saffron has become something of a busy downtown extension of the Movahedis’ own kitchen.
“Everything is our own,” Movahedi says. “If I didn’t love it, it wouldn’t be on the menu. Most of what we have here is what we eat at home, and almost everything is organic. Almost everything is freshly made.”
Immigration has always provided much of the soul, vibrancy and brawn of the Monterey Bay food community, and organic, farm-to-table- quality ingredients have long been staples of certain local restaurants that offer international cuisines—particularly ones that adopt a fine-dining model, like Ristorante Avanti and La Posta in Santa Cruz and La Balena in Carmel.
But now, as diners here and across the United States seek out more healthful and adventurous, yet casual and high-value food, the diversity of nationalities and formats of local restaurants committing to sourcing organically is rising—and those who’ve been doing it all along are benefiting from their patience. If there is a common denominator among the proprietors, it’s a desire to nurture and entertain their guests as they would family in their own home.
LAND OF ORGANIC
One of the earliest of these local restaurants is the colorful, art-filled Haute Enchilada, founded 20 years ago by Kim Solano as a folk art café and espresso bar. Gradually, Solano—who grew up in Aptos but lived in her father’s birthplace, Mexico, for several years as an adult—began serving food, starting modestly with bagels. Today, she offers an exciting and sophisticated Latin fusion menu featuring the flavors of Peru, Spain and Cuba as well as Mexico.
Along the way, Solano has been a leader in running her Moss Landing- based business sustainably, becoming the first in the Monterey Peninsula area to get rid of plastic straws, and pioneering such natural practices as using owl boxes to keep away rodents.
With the environment and her and her customers’ health in mind, Solano has never sold anything but sustainable fish and makes a point of preparing everything she can with organic ingredients.
“It’s easy where we live—how can we not be [organic] when it’s so easy here?” Solano says. “Pesticides are killing us.”
The Monterey Bay area in fact has an abundance of organic farms and a much higher percentage of organic versus conventional crops under cultivation than the national average—the result of being at the vanguard of the organic movement since the founding of the UCSC Farm in the 1960s.
“One of the reasons we came here was the cornucopia,” says chef Diego Felix, referring to the plethora of local organic ingredients available to local chefs.
After working together at the organic and vegan fine-dining restaurant Millennium in San Francisco, and then their own restaurant, Casa Felix, in Felix’s home town of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he and his wife Sanra Ritten moved to Santa Cruz two years ago.
Originally trained in theater and immensely creative, Felix calls himself a “culinary troubador,” and aims to create a bridge between Argentina and the U.S. with his Colectivo Felix, an internationally acclaimed roving pop-up restaurant and catering company. And if all goes well, he hopes to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Santa Cruz in 2019.
Clockwise from right: Spicy Dan’s Peanut Delight at Charlie Hong Kong; Denis Boaro at Gusto Handcrafted Pasta & Pizza; Ramin Movahedi (left) with operations manger Bijan Zahedi and assistant manager Roxanne Miller at Saffron Café, Ayoma Wilen at Pearl of the Ocean, and Kim Solano with her husband, Luis Solano, and father, Ray Retez, at Haute Enchilada
But while local chefs like Solano and Felix find it easy to source organic— that is, foods that are certified according to USDA guidelines as being produced without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers or genetically modified products, among other requirements—the decision to choose them takes commitment, usually to pay more, sometimes significantly. And obtaining certain organic ingredients requires some travel.
“To me personally and to my guests, it’s everything,” says Denis Boaro, when asked how important being organic is to his casual Seaside restaurant, Gusto Hancrafted Pasta & Pizza, which serves the cuisine of his native Italy. “It goes into our body—we are what we eat.”
Boaro picks up his organic berries himself from California Giant in Salinas or Santa Cruz each week, and imports the organic, stone-ground flours for his wood-fired pizzas from a small-production mill in Northwest Italy. His other restaurant, Carmel’s Basil Seasonal Dining, is certified sustainable by the Green Restaurant Association and Boaro expects Gusto to receive its own certification soon.
Concerns like Boaro’s about health were the No. 1 reason for sourcing organically given by restaurateurs interviewed for this story, and studies have borne this out: Organic milk, for example, has been found to offer higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional, and organic fruits and vegetables have shown higher concentrations of disease- fighting antioxidants and lower amounts of harmful heavy metals and pesticides than conventional. Just this past October, the results of a new French study published in JAMA Internal Medicine tied frequent consumption of organic foods with a 25% reduction in cancers.
Charlie Hong Kong co-proprietor Carolyn Rudolph is quick to clarify that the Santa Cruz restaurant is not an expression of her and her husband Rudy’s heritage, and is more of a “health food restaurant that has chosen to use Asian flavors in our food” than an Asian restaurant, strictly speaking.
But just the same, over its 25-year history, Charlie Hong Kong has become a beloved and vital part of the Santa Cruz ethnic organic food scene. The restaurant’s Asian street food-inspired menu is heavily vegetable- centric—Charlie Hong Kong goes through 3,864 bunches of Swiss chard alone per month—and as a result, Rudolph buys only organic, mostly from Lakeside Organic Gardens.
“You can’t wash the chemicals off a chard leaf,” she says. “The vegetables would be like little poison bombs.” (For the record, the Environmental Working Group, which rates foods for their pesticide residues, places chard neither on its Dirty Dozen nor its Clean 15, but somewhere between the two.)
Ayoma Wilen, the chef-owner of Pearl of the Ocean in Santa Cruz, sees serving healthful, organic food as not just a way to keep customers healthy, but also to boost their health.
“My intention is that people love this food and people heal from this food,” Wilen says, and she trains her staff to follow the same purpose: “At every station I have a notice: ‘I prep with love; I cut with love; I serve with love.’”
As a young girl growing up in Sri Lanka, Wilen began visiting farmers’ markets with her father, a professor and son of an aryuvedic doctor. Her father always insisted on organic purchases, and with these ingredients, Wilen learned her mother’s cooking repertoire when she was just 14.
At the same age, Wilen started her first business, employing other children’s parents to make yoghurt for sale in her school cafeteria, and her ambition and achievements are readily evident at her Water Street restaurant: An entire wall is covered in framed reviews and profiles, and on the menu, she offers private-label wines that she worked with acclaimed Livermore winemaker Pat Paulsen for four years to develop to pair optimally with the particular flavors of Sri Lankan food.
Using fruits and vegetables from the Saturday Cabrillo College and other farmers’ markets, fish from Stagnaro Bros. and natural meats, Wilen prepares meals that offer the six tastes of the aryuvedic diet that are intended to keep health in balance: bitter, sour, sweet, salty, pungent and astringent.
This focus on food as medicine makes it no wonder that Wilen has a strong following among cancer patients, but being healthful doesn’t get in the way of flavor—each dish is infused with its own complex mix of seasonings. The not-to-be-missed Cauliflower Cashew Curry, for instance, is flavored with a transporting combination of turmeric, cinnamon, coriander, garlic, fenugreek, green chiles and black mustard seed.
FOCUS ON FLAVOR
Taste is also a big impetus for going organic for many of the local international restaurants that commit to offering organic ingredients when they can.
Above the pass-through window at Pacific Grove’s Jeninni Kitchen + Wine Bar, which serves the Mediterranean cuisine of proprietor Thamin Saleh’s native Levant, a blackboard labeled “Friends and Family” lists the local organic Borba, Mariquita, Seredipity and Swank farms.
“For us in terms of the food itself, they do have a much better presence in our dishes because they have a better flavor in general,” Saleh says, referring to the fresh, local organic ingredients that the farms provide.
Saleh remembers the shock of biting into a tasteless tomato from a large grocery store chain when he moved to this area from an agricultural region on the West Bank in the mid-1980s. So to ensure a supply of flavorful, clean produce, his restaurant buys from three different local farmers’ markets.
Taste is of course highly subjective, and the results of research on the topic are mixed. Still, there is evidence to support the idea that organics taste better: The large quantities of antioxidants that help make organic produce so healthful also deliver a lot of flavor, and some research has suggested that the typically higher quantities of nitrogen used in conventional farming tend to boost sugars but dilute other flavors when the fertilizer causes produce to bulk up.
Better flavor is Lalita Kaewsawang’s top reason for purchasing organic, sustainable and local ingredients for her 1-year-old pop-up restaurant and catering business, Hanloh Thai Food.
“I was not raised to pay attention to those things,” she says, and she didn’t fully grasp their importance until after moving to the U.S. at age 13 and working in restaurants in Berkeley, New Orleans and Chicago. It took landing in Santa Cruz, she says, and apprenticing with David Kinch’s 3-Michelin-star Manresa for two years for her to really notice the difference. “It does taste better, and the quality is better if it’s grown here and is fresh.”
Kaewsawang gets her cabbages from Pinnacle and her carrots and lettuce from Route 1. She’s had some difficulty obtaining enough particularly Thai varieties of produce—holy basil, for instance, is delicate and dries out easily in the local climate—but recently she gave seed to three different friends to grow for her. Her makrut (also known as Kaffir) lime leaves, on the other hand, virtually fell into her lap—one day a local farmer called her out of the blue to say he was growing them on his small certified organic farm, and asked her if she wanted any.
But taste is not the only impetus for Kaewsawang to purchase organic— the environment is another important one for her and many of the other chefs and proprietors who spoke to Edible Monterey Bay for this article.
“I really want to be better about the environment. I think it takes a lifetime commitment,” Kaewsawang says.
“I think about my kids and my grandkids and my great grand kids and everybody,” says Movahedi, referring to pollution and climate change. “When we pick things for the restaurant, whether it’s a straw or or a spoon or whatever, what is an extra few pennies to make sure that they don’t stay around forever and destroy the world?”
Indeed, slow-to-decompose plastics have been found to injure and starve wildlife and contaminate the food chain, and chemicals used in conventional farming practices can poison farmworkers, water and ecosystems. Studies have also found that organic practices that build up soil health can also increase carbon-trapping qualities—thereby helping to stem global warming. This effect becomes even stronger when farmers use regenerative agricultural practices, such as reduced tilling.
From left, Lalita Kaewsawang of Hanloh Thai Food, who hosts a regular Monday night popup at Sante Adairius in Santa Cruz and aims to eventually open her own restaurant; a Mediterranean panini from Saffron Café
MAKING IT WORK
But while the benefits of going organic are important to the restaurants that commit to it, the cost of doing so remains an issue.
Akindele Bankole, who opened his West African-influenced counter service restaurant, Veg on the Edge, last year in Santa Cruz’s Abbott Square Market, says he has to charge a bit more than local fast-casual eateries that don’t share his commitment to sourcing organically as much as possible, and that has been a challenge. “The investment has to start with the customer, but it has been a slow process,” says Bankole, who grew up in Nigeria.
Meantime, as Bankole works towards becoming 100% organic, he has found ways to cut other costs, such as replacing his disposable plates with reusable glass tableware. And while he’s very grateful to have his first location in the marketplace, he thinks opening a second, freestanding location with more of a fine-dining model will help: He believes the more upscale format will better allow him to cover the cost of his high-quality ingredients, and will also drive business to his lower price point Abbott Square location.
For Kim Solano, time has made all the difference.
“Unfortunately, it’s expensive,” to source organically, Solano admits, and she says she probably doesn’t make as much money as she would if she didn’t. But staying true to her conviction that other people would want to eat healthful meals in a beautiful place as much as she does has paid off.
“I just know that if you put a good product out there and you persevere and wait out the many, many storms that you suffer, you will find some success,” Solano says.
“For me it’s taken 20 years of patience and waiting for people to get it,” she says, but she’s gratified to be feeling some success now at her bustling restaurant. “To me there is more to flavor than the way it tastes.”