Talk of farm-to-table cuisine usually starts with in-season fruits and vegetables, hits a midpoint with heritage grains, and ends with humanely raised, locally sourced meats. Rarely, it seems, does the conversation turn to dairy, which is often thought of as a complement to a dish rather than the star. But that doesn’t diminish its importance for two of L.A.’s top seasonally minded chefs, who are showcasing dairy in all sorts of wonderful ways.
“I love dairy,” says chef/owner Suzanne Goin of a.o.c., Lucques, and Tavern. Goin was cooking farm-to-table cuisine before the term was a household name. “I love the creamy and luxurious textures and pure bright—sometimes acidic, sometimes rich—flavor profiles you get from dairy. Those flavors balance and compliment other ingredients to create complex flavor profiles.”
Indeed, cheeses, yogurt, crème fraiche, and butter are “used generously” at a.o.c. She points to the saffron aioli on the arroz negro with squid as an example of how just the right dollop can make a dish. “The cool aioli melts into the hot rice,” says Goin, “creating a creamy aromatic sauce that cools and coats each grain of rice.”
When it comes to cheese, Goin likes to pair sheep’s milk cheese with Spanish flavors like jamon serrano, Marcona almonds and sherry; for more “acidity” goat cheese, she usually turns to sweet fruits. She has even created “odes” to a particular cheese, like a plate of triple crème with cherries and hazelnuts and another in which a torta of gorgonzola and mascarpone is served with walnuts in honey.
At Rustic Canyon Wine Bar & Seasonal Kitchen in Santa Monica, executive chef Jeremy Fox has come to see farm-to-table cooking as more than just shopping at the farmers markets and knowing where the restaurant’s food comes from. He has moved on to a do-it-yourself ethos that runs the gambit from ketchup to cheese.
“I always loved kitchens where we were able to work on little projects and learn things and teach ourselves things, and I wanted that environment here,” Fox says. In that vein, he told his kitchen, “ ‘Let’s learn how to make the best aioli. Let’s make ricotta. Let’s make mustard. Let’s make ketchup. Let’s do all these things in-house, and let’s build this larder—not a physical larder but a creative one.’ ” Of the move, he says, “That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
When it comes to hand-making cheese, Fox likes to make his own ricotta from buttermilk and cream. It goes into making his ricotta dumplings and is incorporated into small plates such as a grilled white nectarine. A byproduct of ricotta-making is whey, which is used to make the restaurant’s Grist & Toll ‘Dent’ corn polenta. Fox serves it with ricotta, “so it’s polenta with curds and whey,” brightened by a rich strawberry and pine nut sofrito.
However dairy is folded into the farm-to-table stable, those at the heart of the movement don’t see it as a trend or fad but a way of life—for themselves and their restaurants.
“I wrote in The a.o.c. Cookbook that everyone should start with a seasonal, farm-to-table vision,” says Goin. “That is just the best way to get your ingredients and the most sustainable way to cook and operate. It’s not the end game. It’s not how a cuisine is defined. We start farm-to-table and then the question is, what does a chef do with those ingredients?”
If the dishes at local farm-focused a.o.c. and Rustic Canyon are any indication, the answer to that question is a delicious one.