The French refer to their wine as having terroir, a sense of place. In San Diego, chefs are creating dishes that mirror the sentiment, encompassing the land, air, sea, climate, and culture of the county. Conscientious farming practices, mindful harvesting, neighborhood markets, and the boundless creativity of local chefs culminate in delicious dishes that flaunt San Diego’s flavors.
With 36 neighborhood farmers’ markets every week, San Diego offers chefs the chance to step out of their kitchens and into the open air to meander through stalls of fruit, vegetables, eggs, and honey to handpick some of our county’s most perfect produce at peak ripeness. Most chefs don’t arrive with a shopping list; instead, they look to be inspired by the bounty at the market.
Some of the specials these chefs create are once-in-a-lifetime dishes or dining experiences, impacted by the time of year, creative influences, and microcrops that are grown on California farms. The dishes offer a bite of a moment in time, encapsulating all the comforts of a memorable meal.
Wheeling a dolly of farmers’ market finds the two blocks from the North Park Farmers’ Market to Tribute Pizza, often through a dining room full of guests, is chef Matthew Lyons’s favorite moment of the week. “The beauty of shopping at the market is getting to try before you buy and letting the produce inspire what goes on the plate. Our philosophy at Tribute Pizza is to buy the best stuff we can from people we know, season it, apply wood-fired heat, and then plate. There’s not a whole lot of technique needed when the produce is already so amazing.”
For a recent Thursday farmers’ market special, Lyons created a wood-roasted caprese inspired by the heirloom cherry tomatoes from Valdivia Farms. “We give them a little rinse, but we don’t even remove the stems. The stems carry a bunch of oils and smells that are essential to how fresh these tomatoes are, indicating that they came off a plant only a few hours prior. We have a beast of a wood-fired oven that imparts a beautiful color, roastiness, and tinge of smokiness that concentrates the flavors.” He combined these tomatoes with pesto, burrata, and 18-year aged balsamic for a straightforward yet complex caprese, which is served with toasted bread.
Every Friday, executive chef Kerry Larceval goes to the La Mesa Village Farmers’ Market, located just steps away from the front door of Fourpenny House. Her first stop is Fred's Urban Farm to select microgreens like pea tendrils and baby radish. Larceval always picks up their popular Biggie Mix (a seasonal blend that can include sunflower, pea, radish, broccoli, kale, and marigold petals) for a salad dressed with a simple housemade apple cider vinaigrette to accompany one of their best-selling dishes, Crofters pie.
Microgreens might seem a light accompaniment to the stout stew of beef, lamb, and roasted veggies, topped with neeps (rutabaga) and tatties (potatoes), but the microgreens are packed with concentrated nutrients. The sprouts are grown in coconut coir (coconut husk fibers) with just water and offer 40 times the nutritional value compared to the adult vegetable counterpart. Farmer Robin Kanzius shares, “There are so many benefits to urban farming. We have met countless neighbors we probably would never have had the opportunity to meet. Now, not only do we eat healthier from our own microgreens but we also have a higher standard for purchasing fresh fruits, veggies, and meats from local farmers.”
North Park’s Thursday Farmers’ Market isn’t the closest market to BIGA, but chef Tae Dickey goes the extra distance to shop there because that’s where he has the closest relationships with local farms. One of those relationships is with Three Sons Farm, where he buys the chicken that is the feature of BIGA’s chicken four ways entrée. Dickey explains, “I had been looking for hyperlocal poultry and after speaking to Nicholas Jaquez of Three Sons Farm, I asked him if he would raise some chickens for my restaurant. We make a stuffed roulade from the thigh, roast the chicken breast, batter the chicken oysters, and add crispy chicken skin. The jus from the stock made from the chickens is utilized for the sauce.”
Jaquez, the farm manager at Three Sons Farm, shares what makes these birds so special: “We raise chickens for meat and eggs using regenerative farming techniques. Every year our pastures improve, which helps the environment by sequestering carbon, increasing water retention, and cultivating a healthy living soil. When our soil is healthy, our pasture is healthy—and that helps us grow healthy, delicious meat and eggs.”
Chef Cesar Oceguera, a native of San Diego, shops weekly at the Little Italy Mercato for Carté Hotel’s sea-to-table restaurant Watercolors. When he’s looking for fresh ideas, though, he ventures to the Leucadia Farmers’ Market. It was there that he discovered Cyclops Farm and, inspired by the variety of produce, created an edible garden with fresh local veggies “planted” in edible soil. The vegetables for the crudité are treated very simply to allow their natural freshness to shine through. The edible soil, on the other hand, is quite an undertaking. Oceguera explains, “First I toast sweet oat and pumpernickel breads along with some candied walnuts. I add raisins and a little bit of agave for sweetness. Next I butter and season brioche to make my croutons. When they are crispy, I put them in the Robot-Coupe and make them into a sand-like consistency; I take half of that and mix it with a little matcha powder to give the illusion of moss.”
Luke Girling of Cyclops Farm describes their growing practices as old-school: “We are certified organic and we use San Pasqual Valley Soils compost to amend our soil and till most leftovers back in. We grow a long list of things from basics like strawberries, carrots, and mixed greens to oddities like purple cauliflower, yellow watermelons, and red long beans.”