A former chef creates a convenient gourmet product from blemished artichokes that otherwise would go for animal feed
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAROLE TOPALIAN AND PATRICE WARD
There comes a time in the life of many chefs when it’s just too much. The long hours, the high-pressure environment and often the dream of owning their own businesses compel many to leave the restaurant world behind and try their hand at something new.
The Monterey Bay area is home to a number of artisanal food businesses started by former chefs, but few have made the transition as successfully as Jane Shaffer, founder and president of Monterey Farms, which occupies a unique niche producing fresh, hand-prepared artichoke hearts.
Like many Easterners before her, the Buffalo, New York native decided as a young woman she couldn’t face one more frigid winter. So she and a friend packed all their belongings into a tiny car and headed for California.
They landed in Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, and Shaffer enrolled in the incipient culinary program at Cabrillo College. She had started out her working life washing dishes at age 14 at a Buffalo dinner house and quickly advanced to line cook—so a chef’s life was appealing and she had talent and ambition.
A guest lecturer was Julio Ramirez, then executive chef at Pacific Grove’s iconic Old Bath House. She helped him clean up after his demo and he offered her a job, launching Shaffer on a career working in many of the Monterey Peninsula’s finest kitchens, including those of The Lodge at Pebble Beach and the former Gallatin’s.
She was tapped as opening chef at the now-defunct Brass Rail Bar & Grill in Salinas, and later was lured away by some regular customers from Tanimura & Antle—where she became their corporate chef. From inside the produce business Shaffer devised salads and recipes using TA’s lettuces.
Then one day a friend from Ocean Mist dropped off a box of artichoke “seconds.” The vegetables were too ugly to be sold in the market and were normally sent to dairy farms as feed. Cows love them!
The artichokes were blemished by sunburn or frostbite or missing leaves on the outside, but perfectly good on the inside where the best part lies—the heart.
Shaffer began tinkering at home in her kitchen to come up with a freshly prepared artichoke heart product to sell to her friends in the local restaurant business.
“I knew the time it took as a chef to prepare an artichoke and how the price of a crate of artichokes can go up and down, making it hard to budget,” says Shaffer. “I also knew I could do far better than the canned, marinated, mushy artichokes on the market.”
After perfecting her recipes, Shaffer founded Monterey Farms in 2000, working out of a commercial kitchen. In 2012, she moved into her current 7,000-square-foot facility in Salinas and brought on longtime chef and friend Janet Melac to help with quality control and research and development. Melac, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef herself, ran the popular Melac’s French restaurant in Pacific Grove with her husband Jacques for many years.
The friends now produce four varieties of fresh artichoke hearts, conveniently sealed in microwaveable plastic packages that can be stored up to 90 days in the refrigerator. Each 6-ounce pouch retails for about $5 and contains the quartered hearts of five or six whole artichokes, saving considerable time and trouble. (Packages sold by the case to chefs come in 2-pound bags.)
The chefs behind ArtiHearts: from left, Jane Shaffer and Janet Melac
“We’re taking produce that would normally go to waste and turning it into a viable product.”
My favorite is their Herbal flavor, with Mediterranean seasonings, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sundried tomatoes. They also make Buffalo flavor, with spicy red pepper tomato sauce; Grilled, which have a smoky olive oil and balsamic vinegar glaze; and Natural, which are simply dipped in a flavor bath of garlic, salt, and fresh lemon to preserve the natural color.
“Artichokes are always something people like,” says Shaffer. “When you put them in a frittata or a pasta dish, it turns it into something really special.”
At a recent visit to the Monterey Farms kitchen, I was impressed by how the entire painstaking process is done by hand.
The company employs a production line of about 20 white-coated kitchen assistants. The first team member uses a band saw to remove the prickly top from the artichoke. Then a couple of workers turn each vegetable by hand, using a small knife to remove any remaining outer leaves. At the next station, spoons are used to scoop out the inedible choke. Finally what’s left is the heart, and that gets cut into quarters. All waste goes to neighboring dairy farms and, apparently, the cows don’t know what they’re missing.
The hearts are lightly steamed and flavored on sheet pans and then moved over to the packaging line. “I like to leave a little crunch so you can use them in salads or cook them a little more in hot dishes,” says Melac.
The business got a big boost when Whole Foods first signed on to carry the artichoke hearts in 2007. They are now in nine of the 11 Whole Foods regions in the United States. The artichoke hearts are also available locally at Star Market, Cornucopia, Deluxe Foods, Jerome’s Carmel Valley Market, Nielsen Bros. Market, Staff of Life and Shopper’s Corner.
But chefs from virtually all of the Monterey Bay area’s top restaurants remain the largest customer base. “We love our local chefs. They are critical to our success and have kept my small business going all these years,” adds Shaffer.
“I love how it’s a full circle sustainable product,” she says. “We’re sitting right here on the Central Coast where the best artichokes in the country are grown and we’re taking produce that would normally go to waste and turning it into a viable product.”
As for a third act, Shaffer and Melac are testing out some new prepared vegetable products for busy cooks, but want to keep them under wraps for now, until they decide if that’s the way to follow their hearts.
Monterey Farms Artichokes
1354 Dayton St., Salinas
Deborah Luhrman is publisher and editor of Edible Monterey Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.