"Basically, the farm is every chef's dream," Mark Sullivan says as he and a crew of volunteers set out one recent morning in a caravan from the Village Pub in Woodside for the farm about which he rhapsodizes.
The volunteers were staff members of the Pub and its sisters -- restaurants of the Bacchus Management Group for which Mr. Sullivan is executive chef and a founding partner.
There were other chefs in the group, and servers, sommeliers, bartenders and managers. The farm they were heading to, in the hills above Woodside, has been providing the fresh produce served at the Village Pub and other Bacchus restaurants, including Spruce in San Francisco, for years.
Arriving at the five-acre farm at the SMIP Ranch, owned for many years by the Djerassi family, the volunteer harvesters could feast their eyes on row after row of lettuces, cucumbers, cauliflower, shelling peas, beets, squash, melons and edible flowers, all thriving and enticing under a hot morning sun.
It's easy to understand the chef's dream metaphor: Mr. Sullivan says the people behind the menus and meals at Bacchus restaurants are able to have a relationship with the farmers -- and as volunteers, with the farm itself -- and have a say in what produce is grown.
Equally important, chefs are able to prepare their meals with the freshest of produce, sustainably grown, rather than fruits and vegetables that might have aged in cold storage for weeks. "If I pick a turnip that morning for a meal that evening, the flavor profile is so different" from what it would be if picked days or weeks before, he says. "It tastes like candy -- the sugar is so present."
After more than 10 years of growing food for Bacchus' local restaurants, the farm has begun offering its harvest to the community as a CSA -- a community supported agriculture project. Under the program, locals can pay $28 to pick up a box of freshly picked produce every week from Bacchus restaurants, which on the Peninsula include Mayfield Bakery & Cafe in Palo Alto as well as the Pub.
On the farm
The partnership between the Bacchus group and the SMIP farm -- SMIP is an acronym for "sic manebimus in pace," or "thus we will remain in peace -- began about 10 years ago. That's when Mr. Sullivan and Bacchus co-partner Tim Stannard started kicking around an idea about having a closer connection with the sources of food served at the Village Pub, which at the time was the only restaurant they owned and operated.
"We asked ourselves, 'How would this be possible? How could we create a farm?' We had to start with finding a person with the same vision," Mr. Sullivan explains.
Enter Dale Djerassi, who lives on the property that had been used as a shorthorn cattle ranch. "Dale had the same vision," Mr. Sullivan says. "Talking to him about the idea, he said, 'By the way, I have 1,600 acres,'" some of which was flat and fertile, he recalls. "And, he believes in doing the right thing to shepherd the land."
Mr. Djerassi says that he, Kristi Spierling, and Jesse Alper embraced the idea of turning the small acreage into a specialty farm, and that's what it's been ever since. At this point, a married couple, Brian Shipman and Mary Colombo, have taken over the farming operation.
The farm donates extra produce to the Djerassi Resident Artists Program -- an artist colony begun by Carl Djerassi, Dale's father, that provides free housing for 90 artists each year. The colony is adjacent to SMIP Ranch.
It was Mr. Djerassi who greeted Mr. Sullivan and his entourage on the morning the Almanac was invited for a tour. He and the chef discussed the upcoming Harvest Dinner, an annual event held on the farm that is set this year for Saturday, Oct. 6.
The volunteer crew headed for the field of crops, met by the resident farmers. "It's an exciting time of year -- everything's jumping out of the ground," Mr. Shipman says. He and Ms. Colombo led the group through the parcels of crops, providing details about the edibles poking out of the ground, and answering questions.
The couple had worked in careers far removed from what they devote their lives to today. But they decided a number of years ago that they "wanted a lifestyle change," Mr. Shipman says. They interned for County Line Harvest, living in a yurt for months.
The farmers led the volunteers to the crop in need of harvesting that morning: shelling peas, warmed by the sun and tasting like sugar treats when popped out of their skins and into the mouths of the harvesters.
Volunteers from the restaurants make the journey up the mountain one or two days a month to help with the farming and "to learn about what's being grown, and where the food is coming from," says Karey Walker of the Bacchus group.
She notes that guests at this year's Harvest Dinner will be able to tour the farm "and learn about sustainable and organic farming practices."
In a written announcement about the event, she says that participants will be "encouraged to pick and eat ingredients fresh from the soil as they make their way around the property."
The Oct. 6 event will include a family-style supper featuring a multi-course menu, with food prepared by Bacchus restaurant chefs, led by Mr. Sullivan and including Dmitry Elperin of the Pub, John Madriaga of Spruce in San Francisco, and John Cahill of Cafe des Amis of San Francisco.
Participants will meet at the Village Pub, then be transported to the farm by private buses.
Cost of the dinner is $195, and reservations can be made by Sept. 22 at [email protected]
Weekly produce pickup
The SMIP farm CSA program costs $28 for each weekly offering a box of freshly picked produce that highlights the season's bounty. Last week's offering included heirloom lettuces, frisee, baby fennel, spicy bush basil, swiss chard, mixed beets, cucumber, and melon.
Pre-orders are required for pickup at the Pub. Mayfield Bakery & Cafe hosts pre-orders, but also offers several extra boxes for those who didn't reserve.
To reserve a box, email [email protected] Include your full name, the number of boxes you want, your phone number, and at which location you will pick up the box.