Edible Monterey Bay

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While the term farm to table is arguably becoming a cliché, its serious practice is still not all that commonplace. Why? Because it’s not easy.

Take chef Brad Briske, of La Balena in Carmel. He describes with relief how his working day now just runs 12 hours, from about noon to midnight.

“It wasn’t always this way,” Briske says. “To start what we have now [at La Balena], there was a lot of running around. Stagnaro in the morning to select the fish of the day. Farmers’ markets and farms to pick up produce and then to pick up half pigs and coolers of chicken. This all happened before ‘my day’ even started, using a full Honda Civic, and I still had an hour to drive” from where he was living in Santa Cruz to downtown Carmel.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 10.27.59 PMSince he began cooking professionally nearly 10 years ago, Briske has been a devotee of the farm-to-table movement. A complete devotee— meaning that seafood aside, Briske only works with what he can buy locally and in season, and he goes the extra step of butchering his own meats. His rationale goes beyond environmental concerns, to trust and to flavor.

“When food only gets touched by a few people, the freshness is completely different,” he says.

Last fall, Briske found his culinary soulmates in Anna and Emanuele Bartolini who were opening La Balena.

Emanuele had grown up in Florence, and before moving to Carmel, worked as a senior manager at Del Posto in In New York. He and his American wife, Anna, were looking for a chef who could recapture the essence of his grandmother’s cooking, which was crafted solely with local ingredients, purchased daily. As soon as they sampled one of Briske’s farm dinners, they knew they had found their man. Edible Monterey Bay readers also think pretty highly of Briske: In online voting late last year, they bestowed Briske and La Balena with EMB’s 2014 Best Chef/Restaurant Award—after the restaurant had been open just a year.

A California native, Briske started his career at Millennium in San Francisco. Right from the start, he pursued his ingredients locally, mostly at farmers’ markets. As he moved his way south via Flea Street Café in Menlo Park, Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz and Main Street Garden and Café in Soquel to his current position, his connection to the community grew as he visited farms and got to know the farmers.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 10.28.15 PM“This is what makes the farm-to-table movement so special here,” notes Nesh Dhillon, director of the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets. “Farms are close enough here that chefs have the option of going to the farms and working directly with the farmers.”

Produce-wise, there’s no question that this is an ideal place for a chef with aspirations to source straight from the farm. Meats and poultry are another story, however; strange things can happen when you’re working with animals.

Chickens are one example. Briske’s chicken supplier is Fogline Farm in Soquel. One night a skunk got into the chicken cage, and before it was trapped several days later, the skunk had killed more than 60 chickens. All Fogline could deliver that week were young three- pounders. “They looked more like quail,” says Briske. But despite the warnings from other local chefs that chickens were too lowbrow for a fine Carmel restaurant, Briske had come up with a very popular roast chicken dish. “I can’t serve these,” was his first reaction when he saw that week’s poultry delivery.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 10.28.54 PMBut his chicken was popular and this is what he had, so he rolled up his sleeves, adapted his recipe and created a new version—fried chicken using rice batter that made the chickens puff up to a more satisfying size. “Customers loved it,” Briske says, still a bit surprised by his good fortune. “It quickly became one of the most popular meals on the menu.” So much so that it created another problem: La Balena has a small kitchen and only one fryer. Demand was so high for this “lowbrow” entrée that he couldn’t produce enough on a busy night. His solution? Now he serves the fried chicken only on the restaurant’s slower nights, Tuesdays and Sundays.

To create a successful farm-to-table restaurant, Briske knows he has to constantly reinvent his menu—sometimes even developing new dishes the same day they debut—and hence, new menus are printed daily.

Briske’s also had to learn a few skills not required of chefs in more traditional operations. Butchering his own meat is one example, and his training was somewhat unconventional. He learned to butcher pigs in a friend’s basement. His first shot at a cow was guided by a YouTube tutorial. He was cooking a dinner for Route 1 Farms for about 120 people. That morning, he hoisted half a cow into the cooler, put on the video, then with only a 5-inch knife, brought the cow down to its bones. The talent has paid off. “I’ve had other chefs eat lamb I’ve butchered that morning and tell me, ‘This is the best-tasting lamb I’ve had. Where did you get it?’”

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 10.28.22 PMLearning to butcher also cured Briske of a serious handicap for a chef—from the time he was a small boy, he was repelled by meat and was a strict vegetarian, and later, a vegan. (When he decided to pursue his love of cooking and go to culinary school, he chose the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, as he knew that there, he wouldn’t be forced to cut up a chicken.)

But in a potent example of the power of knowing where your food comes from, seeing a pig slaughtered and butchered at Everett Family Farm in Soquel when he was in his mid-20s made Briske more comfortable with the idea of eating meat, and today, at 32, he’s a devout carnivore.

Since La Balena opened, the restaurant has quickly grown into a locals’ favorite, and, with only 28 indoor seats (and enough room for 50 overall when the outside garden is open) a weekend reservation can require calling a week ahead.

Customers relish the restaurant’s relaxed vibe and the deeply flavorful fare that comes from Briske’s purist approach to sourcing ingredients and making everything from scratch.

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“Its simple, like home cooking, except I have an unlimited budget and spend 10 to 12 hours a day cooking, making stocks from whole animals and simmering them overnight,” Briske says.

Briske’s style is light and fresh, but the meals are also sizeable enough to be shared, something he can afford to serve in part because when he butchers his meat, he uses everything.

“Everything,” of course, means choice cuts like porterhouse and rib eye but also ravioli stuffed with veal tongue, ricotta gnocchi topped with rustic beef heart Bolognese and a rich lamb ragu made with parts of the lamb I needn’t divulge.

He makes his own charcuterie and sausages, too, and he’s known for his octopus and the pastas he makes fresh daily. Briske can also make a mean vegan plate. 

While running a restaurant kitchen and having a family (Briske now lives in Pacific Grove with his partner, Linda, and their young daughter, Lola) might be enough for most chefs, Briske also has a passion for the challenge of cooking farm dinners—and has done so for such high-profile hosts as Outstanding in the Field and in such unusual formats as a 5-course fish feast for 100 people in a Pacific Coast sea cave.

Screen Shot 2014-02-28 at 10.27.46 PMThe October 2012 farm dinner where Briske met the Bartolinis was organized by Edible Monterey Bay to honor that year’s Local Heroes winners.The dinner took place in a Barn in Watsonville at Live Earth Farm, and Briske, the chef, rocked the house with such inspired dishes as “Clash of the Seasons in Brodo,” an intensely savory soup made with season-crossing fall pumpkin, summer dry-farmed tomatoes and locally grown wheat berries.

The Bartolinis were just opening La Balena, and wanted a menu that was Tuscan-influenced and would also support local farms and the community. They found shared philosophies and tastes with Briske, and a partnership was born.

It’s true that many restaurants in the area try to buy the bulk of their ingredients locally, eschewing the big commercial food supply companies, which, akin to a chef’s convenience store, ship products from around the world into their warehouses and then ship them out again to fill restaurant shopping lists.

Anna Bartolini is profoundly committed to supporting and purchasing from local farms but notes that it’s a lot of work. “It’s great for the community,” she says, “but not always great for the restaurant.”

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As Soerke Peters, chef and owner of Basil Carmel, which is the only local restaurant certified by the national Green Restaurant Association and is a dedicated farm-to-table practitioner, says, “Sourcing out all the farmers and ingredients takes time. It’s not like having everything delivered from Sysco. You have to have diversity and be fair to everyone. Most of us buy from five to eight different farmers.”

Because the kitchen at La Balena is so small, Briske does not have the refrigeration space to buy for the week. So deliveries from farms including Live Earth, Serendipity Farms, Swank Farms and Fogline come several times a week. Additionally, Briske frequently visits local farmers and local farmers’ markets—trips that are made easier now that downtown Carmel-by-the Sea has its own farmers’ market.

So one advantage to La Balena’s small kitchen is that nothing has a moment to get old. “We fly through so much so quickly,” Briske says. “Other bigger restaurants have to put dates on everything. Nothing lasts on our shelves longer than a few days.”

This isn’t an easy way to run a kitchen. But Briske has clearly found his niche, and his customers are grateful.

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Lis Bensley is a college counselor at Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School in Santa Cruz. She has written for The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Fine Cooking, Kitchen Gardens and other national magazines as well as coauthored The Women’s Health Cookbook (Penguin, 1988).

RECIPES: For Briske’s recipes for Clash of the Seasons in Brodo; Stinging Nettle, Cannellini Bean and Farm Egg Soup; and Stinging Nettle Tagliatelle with Nettle and Leek Cream and Breadcrumbs, go to www.ediblemontereybay.com/recipes.