In just a few hours three chefs turn ten chickens into 15 dishes.
On a recent Monday in Vista, Keith Lord, founder of culinary consulting firm Stratәjē Fourteen, invited a couple friends to cook in his backyard for what he described as a “chef’s day off.”
The intimate feast was prepared by the likes of Willy Eick, executive chef at Mission Avenue Bar & Grill and Matsu, and Davin Waite, executive chef and owner at Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub, The Whet Noodle, and The Plot (soon to be open).
The private event was not only an opportunity for longtime colleagues and friends to recharge over the shared experience of cooking, connecting, and feasting, it was a reunion to champion a product Lord describes as “magical and insanely good.”
That magical product is Autonomy Farms’ hand-fed chickens, raised in a Bakersfield-based operation owned and operated by Lord's close friend Meredith Bell. Bell worked in hospitality and high-end food service positions for years in San Diego, and much of that time was spent assuming various roles alongside Lord, Eick, and Waite across the city’s tight-knit food scene.
In 2013, Bell decided to pursue her passion and launched Autonomy Farms a year later. Today, she estimates her farm is home to as many as 10,000 chickens at any given time, making them her signature product along with a few other varieties of humanely raised livestock such as grass-fed cattle and turkeys.
Autonomy’s chickens are available for purchase at the weekly Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, locally through wholesale distributor Specialty Produce, or by mail order, but Lord sees San Diego as an untapped market for Bell. “I really just want to help Meredith reintroduce her product to a community that she’s so tied to. For me, it feels like I might be helping her to bring it full circle. It’s time!” he says with a laugh.
Lord has long lauded the remarkable quality of Bell’s chickens while also lamenting the fact that more people, especially in San Diego, aren’t aware of their availability. “She does everything [for the chickens] from start to finish, including the processing,” he explains. “We thought [this event] would be a different way of showcasing them. Nobody hand-feeds chickens. Nobody grows clover for them to finish on, and you can taste it in the product.”
For Lord, 2017 International Caterers Association Chef of the Year, the long-term professional relationship that has been established with Bell is extremely close and special. “We push each other, we drive each other, [and] we both have a passion for what we do. It’s been like that since day one.”
Bell agrees: “He’s been a huge, adamant supporter of mine for a really long time and would probably do anything to help me succeed with this farm.
Everybody needs positive reinforcement and encouragement. I’ve been lucky to have that with Keith.” Autonomy Farms is a grassroots operation, and Bell admits it’s pretty much just her running the show.
This makes expansion of her business difficult to achieve if she wants to maintain hands-on quality. “In all honesty, that’s something that I struggle with figuring out: how to scale business without losing what we stand for, what the product is, and what makes it unique to begin with. I’ve been taking it slow… I’m not willing to compromise the quality at this point just to focus on expansion.”
With supporters like Lord and the rest of the party in her corner, finding that balance seems a little bit easier. “I need to be around people who inspire me and encourage me to be better and really think outside the box. I think that group of chefs definitely does it for me,” says Bell. “A lunch like this is so unique and different, with so many chefs that are truly inspiring and encouraging me down the path I should be taking. It shows that where I’m at is exactly where I should be.”