October 13, 2020 – Covid-19 hit the world like a shot of paralysis. We all have our own personal stories of how it has halted us in some way or another, and for chef Katherine Stern—who had recently retired from nearly ten years as head chef at La Posta in Santa Cruz—a vision of opening up her own restaurant dissipated quickly.
Stern pivoted her energy and became involved with the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets, working as part of a team adapting the markets to this new normal (see Essential Services in Summer 2020 issue of EMB). During that time, she had the opportunity to get some perspective, realizing that her ultimate goal was to continue creating good food using the ingredients our local farmers grow here around the Monterey Bay.
“After leaving La Posta, my intention was to open a restaurant. I had chosen a location yet the process was moving along very slowly,” she says. “Once the pandemic hit, I had already started thinking of some new plans, but Covid certainly halted any thoughts of opening a brick and mortar location anytime soon.
I began working with the Santa Cruz County Farmers Market management team to implement new safety protocols for markets. After talking with Nesh Dhillon, the market manager, I started to realize that a stall at the market made perfect sense. People could still enjoy good food, but gather in a safe, outdoor setting. Even better was being able to work in such close proximity to the wonderful farms that I knew so well.”
Her new project, called The Midway, makes perfect sense. The dishes and menus that developed a loyal following for so many years at La Posta, inspired by deep farm-to-table cooking experience in Tuscany, were always driven by Stern’s weekly visits to the Farmers’ Market. The relationships she created with growers and foragers have proven to pave the way for The Midway in a very organic sense. She credits local vendors completely, “Their passion and hard work in bringing the latest harvest to the community makes being a local chef an exciting and collaborative experience, which is the inspiration behind The Midway.”
As for the name, Stern explains that, The Midway is a meeting spot—a place to gather and share experiences. Of course, with the pandemic, we are doing far less gathering, but at the farmers’ market people can come together and share the experience of the seasons. “It is a place in the middle, between the field and the table where the bounty of the market is discovered. It is a spot to make connections with farmers, vendors and friends over the plethora of ingredients that are available in our area,” she says.
So now, instead of a restaurant with four walls, let’s recognize and embrace the new dining experience. In this case, a food stall in an open-air market where we can find astonishing, ingredient-driven food. It is time to let go of our old notions, and support the efforts of those choosing to produce handcrafted, soulful products.
Since launching the new concept a couple weeks ago, chef Stern has offered a wide variety of items that are destination worthy. There is a savory rice porridge, infused with turmeric and ginger, topped with options such as Fogline Farm pork belly, housemade chili paste or a fried egg. There is house baked bread, usually in the form of a daily toast, slathered with apple butter, ricotta, shaved fennel and walnuts, or an ever changing roster of tempting baked goods, like carrot-orange marmalade cake or the tender, savory delicata squash, pear and crescenza galette offered last weekend. Everything is housemade and downright delicious, like a recent cheddar biscuit breakfast sandwich with a perfect fried egg, yolk the color of a harvest moon, with nettle pesto, arugula and roasted tomato. There are also pantry items for purchase, like the chili paste, pickles, jams and cardoon-infused honey.
This food is impressive, and anyone who knows a thing or two about scratch-cooking, also knows it takes time. So even more astounding is that Stern is a mother of twin 6-year-olds. When asked how she handles it all, she says, “The family juggling act has always been part of our lives, even pre-Covid. We have a fantastic babysitter who has been helping the kids with distance learning and my husband and I participate in a kind of parenting relay: ‘tag-you’re-it!’ Thankfully we still get to have family meals together and some entertaining dinner time conversation that you can only have with two 6-year-olds.”
Looking ahead, Stern is excited about using late autumn produce, but isn’t tied too strictly to any set menu items. “The menu is always inspired by what is available and often I won’t plan anything until I see what is at the market. But I do see winter squashes, pomegranate, pears, apples, persimmons, late season peppers and tomatoes all showing up on the menu in the near future. And of course, GREENS!”
Find The Midway at the Westside Santa Cruz Saturday market, 9am-1pm and at the Live Oak Sunday market, 9am-1pm. Also, as a member of Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Market, they are gladly accepting EBT tokens which can be purchased from the information booth.