March 1997 — Donia Bijan always changes the menu at her restaurant, L’Amie Donia in Palo Alto, on the first day of each new season. She’ll switch to the spring menu on March 20, the day of the spring equinox. It’s a bit disconcerting to her that by then, on the farms where the vegetables that she serves are grown, spring will have been in full bloom for a month or more.
‘I really noticed when I moved down to Palo Alto from San Francisco that fava beans are borderline exotic for a lot of our guests.’
Bijan continues, “I think the things around spring that excite me most are those: the strawberries, the asparagus, the artichokes, the sweet peas, English peas and fava beans.”
Bijan, who was born in Iran, was trained as a chef in France. She started cooking in San Francisco in 1986, and opened her restaurant in Palo Alto three years ago this summer.
She has also had a produce company called Greenleaf, majoring in the gourmet, organic vegetables that she serves in her restaurant. So she has been closely connected with the Bay Area small-farmer scene for a long time.
The relationship between restaurateurs and farmers in the region has never been better, she says. “We lead the nation in the attention that we pay to our small farmers, particularly with the restaurants that make the decision to support small farmers,” she says.
The farmers have responded in kind. The quality of the produce they harvest “just keeps getting better.”
Public consciousness about agricultural issues and knowledge about out-of-the-ordinary food has also been raised, though some consumers are more knowledgeable than others, as she learned when she arrived in Palo Alto and started serving one of her springtime favorites, fava beans.
“Cooking with them in San Francisco for so long, I didn’t consider them exotic,” Bijan says. “But I really noticed when I moved down to Palo Alto that they are borderline exotic for a lot of our guests. They hadn’t had them. They didn’t know how to peel them. With the open kitchen and the counter being so close to the guests dining, I could just see that it was something new to them.”
That is “changing very rapidly,” she says, thanks to several “great” farmers markets in the area and a Monterey Market in Palo Alto, a satellite of the famous specialty-produce grocery in Berkeley.
Perhaps it will show in a slightly lower percentage of guests this year picking suspiciously at plates of Bijan’s planned first-day-of-spring special: rabbit ravioli with fava beans.
While Bijan gets most of the vegetables she needs from produce companies, she finds that the farmers market in downtown Palo Alto, just a block away from the restaurant, fills an important niche in her shopping needs.
On Saturday morning, deliveries from produce companies are spotty. So she can buy flowers and small quantities of produce to fill the gaps. “I don’t need to buy a lot. It just makes it more exciting because we know that what we are buying we are going to use up Saturday night,” she says.
The only problem is the market is closed from October through May. “So I miss out on winter crops at the farmers market,” Bijan says. “But so be it.”