In California farm-to-table dining is the mantra that governs gastronomy. A philosophy which Alice Waters began at Chez Panisse in 1971, with the then ground-breaking notion of embracing local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, it is a credo that continues to define California cuisine to this day. In Los Angeles Courtney Guerra has taken the idea of farm-to-table a step further. She’s not just farming, she’s urban culinary farming, growing produce and herbs for the kitchen of one of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants, Alma.
Guerra’s urban culinary farm is located in one of the most unlikely areas of LA, just off the busy Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. Set in a typical suburban street – aptly called Flower Avenue – it comprises an eclectic mix of raised beds, a makeshift greenhouse full of micro-herbs, and hydroponic grow towers sprouting salads. At the height of spring, Guerra’s farm is blooming in full force. As she guides me through her garden, picking flowers and leaves for me to taste and smell, she explains things with encyclopaedic knowledge. Red Malabar spinach is at the end of its season but still climbs up the wire fence on the edge of the property, while lettuces are growing, gherkins are flowering, and an assortment of fragrant herbs powerfully scents the air. Among a host of other things, Guerra grows rau ram, a Vietnamese coriander; za’atar, a Middle Eastern oregano; epazote, an aromatic Mexican herb; and Hyssop, a mountain herb, whose intense mint flavour shoots right up my nose.
For what Guerra farms for Alma are not the kinds of cultivars you’d find at the farmers market. It’s a collection of unusual herbs, a taste of the unfamiliar. “I made the decision very early on that I don’t want to compete with the farmers market, it’s just not possible for me to grow things in those quantities,” she insists. “What I do is much more esoteric; it’s there to be an added component to Alma’s menu development and brand, a part of its story.”
Blonde, tall, toned and tanned, Guerra epitomises the stereotype of the California beach babe. In fact she was a professional beach volleyball player for six years, touring the globe following university. “It allowed me to travel and see the world and after I was done playing I thought: ‘That was my one chance of doing something I’m truly passionate about.’” But after ending her volleyball career and going down the traditional route of getting an office job, Guerra quickly realised that sitting behind a desk from nine to five was not for her. She needed to find a new passion.
Her love of food and cooking, instilled in her by her late grandmother, inspired her to enrol in the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in Napa Valley. “It was like Disneyland for chefs and foodies,” she recalls. During her studies, she worked in the kitchen and garden of Napa’s three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, which opened her eyes to the possibilities of culinary farming. And upon graduating in 2012, she knew she didn’t want to work as a chef: “I decided I wanted to move to LA and start a farm.”
Guerra rented the back studio of an old friend’s property in Venice, whose front yard was filled with junk. “He was a bachelor and hoarder,” she laughs. “I cleaned it all up, which was highly appreciated by the neighbours, and turned it into my urban farm.” She adds: “It was a huge risk – I’d put all my money into this project – and there were many moments when I was really scared of what I was about to do. But I absolutely had to give it a go because I felt so sure that I would find a chef, who would understand what I was trying to achieve and share my vision.”
That chef is Ari Taymor, who together with partner Ashleigh Parsons, opened Alma in Downtown LA at the end of 2012. “Ari and Ashleigh instantly got it,” Guerra says. “They had a very strong vision of what they wanted Alma to be and I fitted into that vision just as much as Alma fitted into mine.” The relationship between the urban culinary farm and restaurant began in January 2013 and virtually overnight Alma became a runaway success. Taymor’s inventive, ingredient-led cooking complimented by Guerra’s maverick approach to growing produce – best exemplified through Alma’s signature Flower Avenue garden salad (pictured) – turned the tiny 39-seat venture into the darling of LA’s restaurant industry. In August 2013, Bon Appetit crowned Alma the best new restaurant in America; in April 2014 Food and Wine named Taymor America’s best new chef; and this year, he was shortlisted for a James Beard Award. “The hype and huge success allowed us to really do what we wanted,” admits Guerra. “Now that things have calmed down a bit, we need to continue to push that creativity.”
Today, Guerra not only provides Alma with salad leaves, greens, micro-greens, edible flowers and herbs from her urban farm, she also spends one day a week foraging for herbs and coastal grasses on a 600-acre private ranch in Santa Barbara. “Foraging is a huge part of what I do and even more of an expression of what I want to do in the future,” she adds. Nature is what drives Guerra and her work is way more than a job to her. Next to farming and foraging for Alma, she also forms an integral part of the restaurant’s community outreach programme, which educates young kids at underprivileged schools across LA about gardening. She works with a family shelter in Santa Monica, advises Los Angeles Trade-Tech College’s culinary department on creating a farm-to-table curriculum, and has partnered with acclaimed Venice-based café Superba Food and Bread’s new event space, which has been designed around a farm. “I don’t want to believe in complete exclusivity [with Alma] because there is such a big need for what I do in LA,” she insists. “It would be selfish to keep it all to one restaurant.” She’s taken the farm-to-table philosophy and turned into an urban reality.
This is the latest posting in my monthly series of LA-focused food articles for The Staff Canteen website.