Forage Taps Certified Home Growers To Serve Hyper-Local Food
In the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Forage restaurant serves up seasonal, local fare at reasonable prices. The place buzzes with the energy of a beloved neighborhood spot – friends catching up over salads, young professionals popping in to grab a takeout dinner - but Forage isn’t just another cute restaurant jumping on the locavore bandwagon. In just under a year and a half in business, Forage has had quite a journey to the forefront of LA’s local eating – and growing – movement.
Chef-owner Jason Kim, former sous chef at Lucques in Hollywood, opened Forage in January 2010. Kim sourced from the usual suspects of nearby farms and farmer’s markets, but then took local to the next level by inviting backyard growers to bring in their excess harvest of fruits, veggies, and nuts. At the restaurant’s Sunday afternoon Harvest Calls, Kim and his staff would sample the offerings from backyard growers, and decide which were to be incorporated into the menu. In return, the backyard growers (aka foragers) received a credit for eating at the restaurant, plus some shout-outs on the restaurant’s website and menu board. This made for a fun and spontaneous menu, and the occasional unusual ingredient like Buddha’s Hand and Surinam Cherry. A true win-win-win situation: a fun community event, quality local produce (that otherwise would have gone to waste) and a fair trade between backyard growers and the restaurant.
Unfortunately, this foodie fairytale was not to be. In April of last year, county public health inspectors visited the restaurant and advised the restaurant to stop using backyard produce because these were not approved sources of food for restaurants. Not complying could have meant losing their A Food Facility Rating, so Forage put their foraging program on hold and spent the next few months talking to farmers, growers, chefs, regulators, lawyers, and health advocates to understand the issues. They eventually learned that the same state certification process that professional farmers use is also available to home growers.
I caught up with Eugene Ahn, who handles Forage’s relationship with local growers and serves as a sort of Forage storyteller. “It was a very long journey,” says Ahn. “We basically had to look at the regulatory landscape from the local level to the state level. It’s all intertwined and the way the county administers certification is based on state codes on how food moves through the supply chain. There are different agencies involved that don’t necessarily communicate with each other. There’s no script or template or story to plug in to say this is how to do it. It’s something that is constantly changing and evolving.”
With the help of an anonymous donor, Forage raised the funds to certify ten home growers to supply the restaurant. That summer, Forage launched the Home Growers Circle with five certified home backyard growers, handpicked by Kim from among the most active foragers of the past year. Next, Forage held an online contest and public vote to choose five additional Home Growers, who formally joined the program in September.
“We picked 10 people who really have passion for growing,” explains Ahn. “They’re all advocates in their own individual ways. Some of them are fairly seasoned growers who are really plugged into their respective communities. Some of them are not. They’re just regular people who think it’s a good idea. We wanted to support a range of people, because it’s difficult to say what kind of person grows food at home and what are the reasons for growing food at home. There are so many reasons and so many types of people.” Since being certified, some of the growers have started supplying other restaurants in addition Forage, a practice that Ahn and team fully encourage.
In an eventful first year and a half, Forage has set the bar for a small business sticking to its principles in the face of adversity. Not only has Forage kept to its mission of local, affordable food, it has highlighted a community of urban growers and outlined a path for casual cultivators transitioning to small-scale farming businesses. It will be interesting to see if more restaurants follow Forage’s example of plugging into hyperlocal food sources and how LA’s backyard growing scene responds to this validation. As Forage says on their blog, “our city's frontyards and backyards present a virtually unseen and untapped edible landscape that speaks to the potential of an urban culture ready to embrace green principles.” Los Angeles, Forage has put out the call, it’s time for us to start growing.
Photos by Rebekkah Drake for Sheepless.