Loretta Keller Interview


Loretta Keller

598 Fourth St.
San Francisco, Calif.
(415) 543-2222

‘We try not to be seduced by that stuff,’ Keller says, of greenhouse tomatoes.

Seasonal Chefs

Changing Notions About What’s In Season

June 1997 — In early June, it may look and feel like summer. The plump red tomatoes that have been piling up in farmers markets for the last several months add to the illusion. But Loretta Keller, chef and owner of Bizou restaurant in San Francisco, will wait before she buys. She won’t have to wait for much longer – a month at most. Tomato season begins, in her view, after July 4. For a good four months after that, tomatoes will have a prominent place on her menu.

The locally grown tomatoes that are widely available around the San Francisco Bay Area through June almost certainly came out of a greenhouse. They look plump and red, but Keller says, “We try not to be seduced by that stuff.” She’s never tasted a greenhouse tomato she likes.

Tomatoes don’t entirely disappear from her menu during the off-season. “In the spring, I use Roma tomatoes from Mexico that we dry in our oven, which is a pretty common practice now in restaurants. I like the results a lot. It intensifies the flavor and the consistency, too.”

Until the season for fresh tomatoes begins in several weeks, there are plenty of other exciting offerings in the markets. Keller’s favorites this month: flat Romano beans, yellow wax beans, English peas, spring onions, sweet onions, and strawberries which are “still hanging in there and really cheap. It is has been a good season for cherries, as well, but she had reports from friends of an unseasonal rain during the first weekend of June that wiped out some of the remaining crop.

Another favorite crop at the moment is fava beans. They are an interesting case study of shifting notions of seasonality, she says. Within the last four years, locally grown, fresh-picked fava beans have been available almost year-round. That’s because farmers in many of the wide variety of microclimates surrounding the Bay Area have noticed that fava beans have gained a following, and they’ve also learned that there is a certain window of opportunity in their area when the cool-weather-loving crop does well.

Fava beans come from farms to the east of San Francisco in the Central Valley during the spring and early summer. By the height of summer and into the fall they come from Half Moon Bay on the coast, the source of favas that in her view are the best. Keller’s produce buyer gives her a produce-availability list every week indicating the price for each item and where it comes from. So she’s able to track the warming of the weather by the steady westward progress of the fava bean harvest.

Though she doesn’t have an opportunity to talk to local farmers all that often, they have a major influence on her restaurant. “I buy a fair amount of produce from an organic grower that sells direct to a lot of restaurants — Star Route Farms. They’re great to work with because if it’s not in season, they don’t grow it and you just don’t get it,” she says. “Ideally, that would be the best way to write a menu,” taking your cue from local farmers. That way, “you’re using the best and the most economic ingredients, which really reflect something about the locale, as well,” she says. “But that’s definitely changing,” Keller adds, citing once again the case of the fava bean.

“Given the unique microclimates that exist around here, farmers can see where there are gaps in the availability of certain items, and they can take advantage of planting in an area where a season might be starting just as it is ending somewhere else,” says Keller. “That’s definitely affecting what we think of as seasonality. It’s still local but the seasons are really extended.”

Keller says she learned something about changing notions of seasonality in France while vacationing in Paris in May. She says she was surprised to see so much foreign produce, particularly from Spain, in the markets and on restaurant menus. “They’ve never been obsessed with seasonality,” Keller says, of the French. “Now there’s an even broader scope of products. We’re all following the sun. We all want summer on our menu,” she says.

Though a producer buyer supplies her restaurant with most of the produce she needs, Keller is a regular visitor to farmers markets. “You can make contact with farmers and people will bring things for you, if you place orders in advance,” she says. Her favorite market is the one in San Rafael on Thursday and Sunday mornings. “It’s a great market and you can get some good deals,” which distinguishes it from the Ferry Plaza market on the San Francisco waterfront on Saturday mornings, which is “wonderful but really expensive.”

Not that she’s too critical of high prices in farmers markets. Small-scale farmers growing extraordinary specialty produce and bringing it freshly picked to market simply can’t compete with supermarkets on price. “Safeway can sell asparagus for 80 cents a pound, when I’m buying it for $1.60 a pound from a local grower,” she says. “A consumer goes to the farmers market and finds locally grown asparagus from the Sacramento Delta, and it’s magnificent — and it’s $2 a pound. Are they going to buy that, or are they going to go to Safeway and buy the junk that Safeway commissions in huge parcels?”

Most American consumers will buy from Safeway, Keller ruefully concludes, though “who knows how it’s handled and how old it is — and you’re supporting Safeway. It’s going to take a long time for consumers to change, to appreciate the importance of supporting local farmers and buying the ingredients that are at their prime.”

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