Farm to Fermentation
Queen of Kraut Kathryn Lukas goes to the source
Photography by Angela Aurelio
While some local chefs seek to move their food sources closer to them by building on-site gardens, Farmhouse Culture is taking its renowned craft kraut operation out to the farm. It’s a dream come true for founder and CEO Kathryn Lukas, who is so dedicated to local sourcing that for years she wouldn’t use ginger because she couldn’t find a year-round source for it in California.
Lakeside Organic Gardens’ Dick Peixoto, who grows most of Farmhouse Culture’s cabbage, recently bought a 19-acre parcel of land in Watsonville where he plans to grow organic cabbage and strawberries. Smack dab in the middle of the fields is a defunct canning facility, and Farmhouse Culture is renovating it with plans to move its production there from Santa Cruz later this fall.
“We now source 99% of our vegetables from within 20 miles,” Lukas says. “With this move it will be within two miles.”
The vertical integration of the company’s production is just the first step in Lukas’ mind.
“What I think is going to happen in about five years from now,” she says, “is that the Central Coast will become the fermented vegetables capital of the United States—people will think of it the same way they think about Napa and wine.” In addition to her business, our local area already boasts 11-year-old Pacific Grove pickling specialist Happy Girl Kitchen Co. and fledgling Santa Cruz kvass brewer Creative Cultures.
Fermented foods need steady temperatures and balanced humidity to ferment at a slow but even pace, developing good bacteria while bad bacteria, mold and fungi are kept at bay. Fermented vegetables are also best when made with fresh produce whose flavor, vitamins, minerals and enzymes are all at their peak.
Well before she launched Farmhouse Culture, Lukas knew all of this. She also noticed that not only is the Central Coast famous for its bountiful produce, it also enjoys a famously moderate climate. And such a climate doesn’t just make fermenting easier—it makes it more sustainable as well, since less ambient heating and cooling are needed.
Lukas had had her first taste of unpasteurized sauerkraut when the former runway model from Los Gatos lived and cooked professionally in Germany. “It wasn’t just that it tasted better,” she says. “It was unlike anything I’d ever had. And I had a recognition of a really healthy food. It was like a long-lost friend. I knew nothing about bacteria and the gut or anything—I just fell in love with it.”
After moving back to the U.S., she first worked as general manager at Stillwater Bar & Grill in Pebble Beach and then was a food and beverage manager at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley.
But Lukas says her “absolute passion” is reviving traditional and artful foods that reflect the region where they are grown. So she attended the natural chef program at Bauman College in Santa Cruz and studied traditional foods around the world for a bachelor’s thesis on pre-corporate food traditions, at the New College in San Francisco.
She became particularly intrigued by the range of possibilities for fermented vegetables, like kimchi, common in Korea.
“Why are we still eating the same white cabbage and salt kraut in this country?” she asks. “We’ve been doing that since the pilgrims.”
Then one day Lukas suddenly realized California was about halfway between Munich and Seoul. That’s when she got busy.
“Why not grab the bounty around us,” she explains, “both the harvest and the cultural influences, and work with it in more interesting ways?”
She started with getting a plain kraut recipe down, using the green cabbage that grows so well pretty much all year long in Watsonville. It is less sweet than white cabbage, which can tolerate colder climates, and it has a sturdier cell structure, too, so it makes for a particularly tart and crunchy sauerkraut.
“I wanted to apply culinary technique to create flavors that would appeal to a large group of people and that reflected California vegetables and California culture,” Lukas says. “I wanted to create things that truly reflected this area.”
Today, that reflection takes the form of six types of kraut, from Classic Caraway to Smoked Jalapeño. And thanks to finally tracking down a reliable source of California-grown ginger, Farmhouse Culture makes a gorgeous, intensely fuchsia-colored Ginger Beet Kraut, too.
Lukas’ krauts are also true to the German original in the best ways. She makes them without the addition of heat through cooking or pasteurization, so they offer the bright flavor and crunch of traditionally raw kraut—as well as microorganisms like Lactobacillus that are highly beneficial to digestion and immune response. The only tradeoff from avoiding pasteurization is that the naturally preserved krauts have a shelf life of only about a year—which is hardly a problem given how tasty they are.
Lukas’ singularly Californian take on traditional ferments has proved wildly popular—her products have, for locals, gone from familiar wooden barrels at the farmers’ market to special pouches designed for their living contents, allowing the company to distribute in large enough numbers to supply Costco. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last year that Farmhouse Culture was making 6,000 packages per week; Lukas says production has tripled since then and is expected to double next year, after the company opens its new production facility amid the cabbages in Watsonville.
So will all this growth put a strain on Farmhouse Culture’s smallbatch goodness and artisanal ethos? Lukas says no, that fermenting kraut is a scalable enterprise, and Farmhouse Culture still packs its products by hand.
“We pride ourselves on our work culture and we pay a fair living wage,” Lukas says. “Almost all of my original crew are still with me and this continuity helps to maintain our artisan quality, I think.”
In fact, aside from helping put the Central Coast on the fermenters’ map and producing healthful, delicious food, Farmhouse Culture’s greatest contribution to the local food scene—especially that of beleaguered Watsonville, which has lost many food-related enterprises in recent years and suffers a high unemployment rate—may be pioneering what post-corporate food production can look like. Thus far, Farmhouse Culture has demonstrated that artisanal food businesses are not only sustainable—but can even manage significant growth without compromising their creations.
Beyond the Hot Dog: Cooking with Sauerkraut
- Half an avocado topped with smoked salmon and horseradish leek kraut
- Ginger beet kraut on goat cheese-smeared whole grain bread
- Smoked jalapeño kraut tucked into a quesadilla or added to nachos
- Classic kraut added to a grilled cheese sandwich made with sourdough and sharp cheddar
- Pickle kraut chopped up in potato salad (or egg salad or tuna salad or deviled eggs)
Or, take it a step further, and really treat it like an ingredient. “One thing that opened my experimentation up,” says Lukas, “was that it doesn’t have to stay in its shredded form.” Chopped sauerkraut, for example, works well in salads or tossed in with cooked vegetables for a tangy burst of freshness.