How L.A. Got Hip to Vegetables
March 1997 — Peter Roelant serves a “vegetable excursion” special every day at Four Oaks, his restaurant in Bel Air. It is a four-course, all-fruit and vegetable dinner, “as much organic as possible,” he says.
‘When I first got to Los Angeles in 1982, people were barely starting to notice anything exotic.’
“It changes with what the market is offering but to give you an example, last night we did yellow and red tomato salad and mesclun salad with chives and pine nuts. The next course was butternut squash and green apple soup, then eggplant ravioli with vegetable julienne in a bell pepper emulsion. For desert we served a creme brulee with raspberries, mango sorbet and chocolate cake.”
Few of those items could be found at the local farmers market in early March, or on the several local farms where he buys certain items directly – including organic baby lettuce, tomatoes and stone fruit — when they are in season. But the Los Angeles produce district is at the crossroads of the world, and Roelant’s buyers, who are there every morning, are able to get superb organic produce year round, he says.
The availability and quality of produce has vastly improved from the day he started cooking in Southern California 14 years ago.
“When I first got to Los Angeles in 1982, people were barely starting to notice anything exotic, or anything that was like baby vegetables, baby carrots, organically grown produce. It was a very sparse market at that time. But from the early ’80s there were a lot of new, young chefs who came from abroad and who were asking growers to grow a lot of these offerings.”
Before the influx of vegetable-savvy outsiders, local chefs “were still making vegetable purees and thought that was cute,” says Roelant. “But after that, there was really an evolution and you saw that all the way down to the grocery store.” The supply of vegetables has also improved as notions of what constitutes “health food” has evolved beyond grains, beans and sprouts. “There is a more gourmet appeal to that kind of fare,” he says.
Farmers markets, such as the one in Santa Monica that he and others on his restaurant staff visit regularly, “are really wonderful additions to the Los Angeles buying scene.”
“Some of our suppliers usually have a stand there,” Roelant says. “So it’s a good opportunity for us to maintain a line of communication with them and also to see what are the offerings at the market and what we can supplement our restaurant with.”
Now back to those tomatoes in late winter. Were they worth serving?
“Compared to what’s in the markets, we can get good organic tomatoes. But they’re not as incredible as they’re going to be in late June or July,” Roelant concedes.