A line of nametags on the wall behind the Chino family's rustic farmstand gives a handful of chefs permission to pick up their ready-bagged orders of veggies. Other chefs slip behind the counter; they've earned the next-best right, to pick out their produce and put it on account. Still others ― new to the San Diego area ― have to stand in line with the North County crowd of Jags and Mercedes parked out front.
The draw is one counter full of perfect cabbages and carrots, squashes and beets, peppers and tomatoes, in every color and variety that exist in the world. The black Spanish radishes are shocking, the shiso sprouts puzzling. One has to wonder: Is there enough of a market for shiso leaves, let alone the sprouts?
It's not a question the Chinos bother with. In this green land of golf resorts and megatracts, people are willing to stand in line for whatever the Chinos grow on the 50 or so acres backing their stand ― labeled only, THE VEGETABLE SHOP.
Happy chefs, happy diners
Ironically, the concept of cooking with produce picked a few hours ago ― "at the right stage" (Tom Chino's understatement) ― is fairly new to the Chinos' own neighborhood. A longtime Navy town, San Diego didn't put a premium on creative restaurant cooking until recently. Now a group of young, seriously talented chefs ― in between days off spent surfing in Baja ― are making names for their kitchens, not so much through chefly high-wire acts, but rather because of their commitment to cooking with local ingredients.
They can do this now because a handful of growers have joined the Chinos in producing pristine goods, in many cases organic. Barry Logan, a former computer systems administrator, grows 25 to 30 different greens ― about 150 varieties of produce in all ― on 5 organic acres of his La Milpa Organica Farm. "This place is so small, it's halfway between gardening and farming," he laughs. But the nutty, peppery salad mix he's known for speaks to all the advantages of vegetables grown where they're going to be consumed, and picked not long beforehand.
Logan's real commitment is to "relocalization," to putting food sources back in the community. It's not just a matter of convenience and freshness; "eating local" has the added benefit of minimizing fossil-fuel consumption.
The Chinos themselves have been leaders in the "eat what's local and seasonal" movement for decades, pressed into prominence when they were introduced to chef Alice Waters (famously, by way of a lug of wax beans) in the late 1970s. Their reputation is so large, in fact, that you can spot "Chino Farm Organic Greens" on the occasional chic (albeit inaccurate) menu in Chicago and New York ― never mind that the Chinos would never let their greens travel as far as Chicago, or that they aren't completely organic. (The Chinos work with a deep respect for the land but leave themselves room for low-impact pest solutions.)
The farm is a family legacy ― historical, personal, and spiritual. Junzo and Hatsuyo Chino, Japanese Americans, made a second start here after losing their first farm while interned in an Arizona prison camp during World War II. Five of their nine children carry on the farm now. Tom, the youngest, explains: "We started out just wanting to counteract market forces that wouldn't allow us to pick produce at the right stage.
"It was probably sweet Silver Queen corn that made us popular. And we did multicolored bell peppers and heirloom tomatoes before anyone else. We just tried to have things supermarkets didn't have."
Everything sounds simple when Tom explains it, but there's more to it than that. With a science degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a background in cancer research with the Scripps Research Institute, he searches insatiably for information about varieties and growing methods. The Chino farm could be a bigger operation, but growing a larger volume of fewer crops doesn't interest him. "We're perfectly willing to do the work this takes," he says.
What modest Tom Chino won't say about himself, the chefs will say for him. "I live where I live partly because of where Chino is," says Trey Foshee, who first turned the menu at George's at the Cove ― an old tourist haunt in La Jolla ― into something exciting and now has partnered in transforming the restaurant into sleek, casual George's California Modern.
Most mornings at the Chinos' stand, Foshee bumps into his former sous chef Jason Knibb, now of Nine-Ten; Carl Schroeder, previously of Arterra and now of Market Restaurant + Bar; and Martin Woesle of Mille Fleurs (he's been coming here for more than 20 years). It's worth the trip because "the Chinos don't put out anything unless it's perfect," Foshee says. "Or it can be blemished, but in a perfect way."
INFO: The Chinos' Vegetable Shop (10-3:30 Tue-Sat, 10-1 Sun; 6123 Calzada del Bosque, Rancho Santa Fe; 858/756-3184); La Milpa Organica Farm (produce available at local farmers' markets; 760/839-1111)
Visit a farmers' market