Kerstin Kühn: A Chef’s tour of the Santa Monica Farmers Market

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th September 2014
In LA-based food writer and former restaurant editor of Caterer and Hotelkeeper, Kerstin Kühn's latest piece, two Michelin-starred chef Josiah Citrin of Mélisse gives her a tour of the famous Santa Monica Farmers Market , where he and his team of chefs go each week to buy the fresh produce for his kitchen.   “It’s always the best time to come here,” enthuses Josiah Citrin as we peruse the aisles of Josiah Citrin_CharlesParkthe Santa Monica Farmers Market. “The seasons here are always great and we’re so lucky to live in this climate. Our produce is the best in the world.”   Citrin, the chef patron of acclaimed French restaurant Mélisse, is giving me a tour of the famous market, where he and his team (as well as countless other LA chefs) come to shop for their kitchen. As we wander along the colourful stalls, taking in the scents and tastes of their rich and diverse bounties of organic fruits and vegetables, herbs, baskets of flowers and freshly baked breads, the chef gets visibly excited by what he sees. “You have to taste these figs,” he exclaims, practically shoving one in my mouth. The Violette de Bordeaux figs from J.J.'s Lone Daughter Ranch are incredible, with their rich pulp tasting just like strawberry jam. “They’re so good we serve them with duck, just like that. You don’t need to do anything with them.”   Next I’m given a small black fruit to taste. “Take a bite out of it,” Citrin orders. It turns out to be an avocado – a Mexicola Grande avocado to be precise. Its black, soft, thin skin is edible while the pale green flesh underneath is unbelievably buttery and nutty. “They’re amazing, huh? You can eat them like an apple,” the chef smiles. Josiah_CitrinAs the largest grower-only certified market in Southern California the Santa Monica Farmers Market is a true institution, which has attracted food enthusiasts and chefs alike for more than three decades. Citrin has been coming here for as long as he can remember as inspired by his mother, who was a caterer, he became interested in food from a young age. “The market hasn’t changed in 30 years, it’s always been the same. It’s just that a lot more chefs come to shop here now,” he says. After graduating from Santa Monica High School, he moved to Paris to explore his French roots and learn about the art of French cuisine while working at Parisian restaurants Vivarois and La Poste. “It was a different time back then and I learned so much about produce, bread and French cooking, technique, dining and things that 25 years ago weren’t part of our culture over here,” he recalls. He returned to the USA in 1990 to work at some of Los Angeles’ finest restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, Patina and Pinot Bistro with chef-restaurateur Joachim Splichal and Jackson’s in West Hollywood, Melisse_Front Doorbefore launching his first restaurant JiRaffe in 1996 together with childhood friend and fellow chef Raphael Lunetta. Three years later he sold his interest in the restaurant to Lunetta to open Mélisse in the heart of Santa Monica in July 1999. Over the years, Mélisse has developed into what is arguably Southern California’s most acclaimed French restaurant. It was one of just three establishments to debut with two stars in Michelin’s now discontinued guide to Los Angeles in 2008 and in the age of the casualification of the restaurant scene, it remains a bastion of fine dining in the city.   Citrin has made a name for himself with his contemporary American cuisine with French influences in style and technique. “My philosophy is finding the best possible ingredients and doing only what’s necessary to keep them great while still providing a dining experience that is interesting and fun,” he explains.  “We use modern techniques and combine them with tradition. We try to hit a factor of deliciousness and craveability – food that you want to eat again and again.”   Serving different tasting menus – ranging from a four- to a 10- and a 17-course menu as well as a five-course vegetarian tasting menu – signature dishes include the egg caviar, a delicately soft poached egg served with lemon-chive crème fraîche and Osetera caviar; and the iconic lobster bolognaise Lobster Bolognese_Melisse 2with fresh capellini pasta, a reduction of tomatoes, beef, veal and lobster stock finished with chopped lobster, truffle, three types of basil and finished off with a brown butter truffle froth.   There is also an entire section of the menu dedicated to tableside dishes such as a whole almond crusted Dover sole, rotisserie chicken stuffed with summer truffles, and a 35-day dry-aged côte de boeuf roti. “We’re not a classic French restaurant but we do things that are old school. I like to keep certain traditions in place – it’s important,” the chef says. However, Citrin’s tasting menus are a far cry from traditional French fare, using contemporary cooking methods and embracing the fantastic ingredients California’s larder is so renowned for. His food is market-driven, light and vegetable focused. “When you have produce like we have here, your cooking evolves,” he insists. “We’re not so reliant on sauces or proteins for instance because the vegetables are just as exciting.”  Josiah_Citrin_Recipe Back at the market we continue from stall to stall picking and tasting things as the Mélisse shopping cart gradually fills up with Jerusalem artichokes, fingerling potatoes, lettuces, herbs, finger limes, strawberries, carrots, beans and more. Citrin selects heirloom, pineapple and cherry tomatoes from Nunak Farm for a salad served with burata, basil, fennel, sweet onion and aged balsamic; and mandarin cross tomatoes from Carpenter Farms in Santa Paula. “The mandarin cross is an incredibly creamy tomato; we make a soup out of it with summer zucchini and squash, which we serve with a tomato sorbet,” he says. From Weiser Family Farms, he buys trumpet squash and lavender-coloured Rosa Bianca aubergines, which he’ll transform into a sublime dish of tromboncini squash alla melanzane for his vegetarian tasting menu (see recipe); and we sample sweet Concord grapes, individually hand-picked at Murray Family Farm in Bakersfield, which he will serve simply as part of the the petit fours. “All the farmers are my favourites,” Citrin concludes. “It’s all about their passion for me. If people bring their passion to you it makes your work so much more exciting. That’s what it’s all about.” See the recipe for Tromboncini squash alla melanzane here Kerstin_KuhnKerstin Kühn is a freelance food and travel writer, specialising in restaurant and chef stories. The former restaurant editor of Caterer and Hotelkeeper, she relocated from London to Los Angeles last summer, where she lives with her husband and two cats. With a vast network of chefs from around the world, Kerstin has profiled the likes of Michel Roux, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, the Roca brothers and Massimo Bottura. She has been a contributor to publications including FOUR Magazine, the Evening Standard Food and Travel MagazineM&C ReportDesign WeekFrame Magazine and City and Canary Wharf Magazines and also writes her own blog, La Goulue. You can follow Kerstin on Twitter @LaGoulue _  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th September 2014

Kerstin Kühn: A Chef’s tour of the Santa Monica Farmers Market