Me and Jessica Koslow in the podcast studio
I just returned from what is perhaps my favorite American loop: LA -> Napa -> Berkeley/SF/Marin -> DC. The primary excuses were podcast recording in Santa Monica (featuring: Ted Danson!), video shooting in St. Helena (more on that another time), and, in Maryland, helping judge a competition of Marriott’s line cooks which began with 1,200 contestants and wound up with one winner. Needless to say, I also visited Monterey Market in Berkeley.
It was a packed and stimulating twelve days, which revealed an unplanned thread, one I didn’t see until I was reflecting (on a typically horrible United cross-country flight) en route to Washington. That theme made me feel lucky, and even optimistic.
It started with a Saturday breakfast in LA with Moby (yeh, this Moby), of whom I’ve been a fan since 1999, and whom I met just a few years ago. Moby is a vegan who says things like, “I wish more of my vegan friends understood that people who are eating majority plant-based diets are on their side.”
A couple of years ago, Moby opened Little Pine, a small, nicely designed restaurant (that gives 100% of its profits to animal rights organizations!) on Rowena Ave. in Silver Lake. It’s vegan, but not like “Oh, the poor vegans never get to eat things that are like meat, so we’re going to make as many meat-like things as we can” (I don’t want to randomly start insulting restaurants, but I have a couple in mind); it’s more like, “We’re going to make some awesome food, it’s gonna be vegan, you’ll probably like it.” In my experience, it’s been terrific—fine ingredients, carefully prepared—and on this morning, I ate top-notch granola, with berries and “coco whip”: thick coconut cream made from fresh coconuts, beaten with sugar and vanilla.
Not that this matters, but Sunday my friend Daniel and I went to MOCA and saw a fun Manny Farber exhibit that ultimately led to a jaw-dropping roomful of Rothkos, probably the single best Rothko display in the world.
Monday I Uber-ed (Lyft-ed, actually) to Culver City, where I ate lunch with Nic Jammet, one of the founders of Sweetgreen. The food was from their “lab,” open to the public and essentially a test kitchen where the best menu candidates are put out there, and the most successful ones get tested in a few stores, and so on. You know about Sweetgreen, but let’s just say (and this is me saying it, not them) that their mission is to source local ingredients from the best farms they can, and make delicious meals—mostly salads.
Then south to Compton, where I met Sam Polk, a former hedge fund trader who now drives a beat-up pickup and has done good work for as long as I’ve known him, five years or so.
Sam’s passion is Everytable, a fast-food concept with inexpensive (often five bucks) boxed, prepared meals that are made using healthy ingredients. They’re sold refrigerated and can be reheated either in the store or at home; think Pret a Manger with good “restaurant” food, like vegetables and quinoa, Moroccan-style salmon, jerk chicken, that kind of thing. The already successful mission here is to make fast food healthy and affordable, better and less expensive than McDonald’s. And Sam’s committed to both putting stores where they’re needed, as in Compton, and where they’ll get press, visibility, and higher profit, like Santa Monica, where the average meal is two bucks more than it is in Compton.
For “The Mark Bittman Podcast” (its likely clever name), I heard from Ted mostly about Oceana, the smart and effective ocean and fish conservation non-profit of which he is vice chair; I also got him talking about “The Good Place,” which I love; and the best piece of fish he's ever had ("a freshly caught sardine, just off a boat in San Sebastián, Spain, thrown on the grill, put into a piece of fresh-baked bread and drizzled with olive oil"). Then I interviewed the great Jessica Koslow, she of Sqirl (I wrote about her in 2015), who sees sourcing good food as a pleasure: “At this point,” she told me, “the farmers are my second family and to buy from them, to care about their practice and honor it, makes me feel like I’m doing my job. Basically, I can rest easy knowing there is thought from sourcing to cooking to serving.” How great is that?
Then: Ethan Brown, who founded Beyond Meat, and about whom I wrote back in 2012. His company has become the most successful purveyor of “new meat,” and Ethan is among the best people I know at arguing that plant-based meat should be the norm. We have our differences, but I love and respect that guy.
One more: In San Francisco, a couple of days later, I visited Plenty, an indoor vertical farming operation, and was shown around by its founder, Matt Barnard. Matt believes that greens (and even other vegetables; they’re doing carrots) grown this way can significantly contribute to the sourcing of sustainably grown plants. They’re not at that scale yet, but they’re supplying a number of Bay Area restaurants, including Dominique Crenn’s. (I was lucky enough to eat at her latest, Bar Crenn, the next night.)
Anyway (talk about burying the lede): Every one of these people believes that they’re either attacking the existing food system, or helping build a new one, or both: through fighting pollution, climate change and overfishing (Ted), to making good food affordable (Sam), to trying to kill the factory farming of animals (Ethan and Moby), to encouraging or even doing sustainable agriculture (Nic, Jessica, and Matt).
One could think of that old fable of the blind people and the elephant—they’re each feeling a different part of a huge animal and describing it differently, and in this case they’re all right: We need to both attack the existing system and build a new one at the same time—and these folks, who are all “working within the system” and seeking profit (with the exception of Oceana), are making better food and policy visible to people who might otherwise not be aware of how badly we need it.
How lucky am I that this is what I get to do for work?
If you’re hungry after reading all of that, here’s what I’ve got for the weekend: Granola with whipped coconut cream (vegan), inspired by Moby and Little Pine; super simple grilled sardines with lemon and thyme, inspired by Ted Danson; and (a rather fancy) chickpea stew straight from Jessica’s book, Everything I Want to Eat. Happy cooking, and see you next week.
You can sweeten this granola with honey or maple syrup. Whatever you choose, the whipped coconut cream (vegan, but in a triumphant way) is a nice finishing touch.
Photograph copyright 2016 Claire Cottrell
Ted Danson told me the best piece of fish he's ever eaten was "a freshly caught sardine, just off a boat in San Sebastián, Spain, thrown on the grill, put into a piece of fresh-baked bread and drizzled in olive oil." I can't quite compete with that, but these are pretty damn good.
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