As a chef, I loved interacting with farmers. I was always really interested in their world. When I returned to the States after traveling and cooking around Europe in 2010, I noticed that I simply could not find nor purchase some of the ingredients that I tasted out there. I remember I was so mesmerized with the flavor of these specific herbs and microgreens that I would occasionally stick a little bit into my pocket so I could show my farmer friend, identify it, and try to grow it myself: sweet woodruff, agastache, geranium, different varieties of mint. Each one has their own complexity.
This obsession formed the foundation of the way my business partner, Teague Moriarty, and I cook at Sons & Daughters. We opened in 2010 and we were both career-driven chefs until the end of 2013, when I took over a property near Santa Cruz so I could start producing more and more of the food for our restaurant. I can't call myself a farmer because even though I grow tons and tons of food for my restaurant and raise our animals, I couldn't begin to tell you how to profit off arugula. I don't know how farmers do that and make a living wage.
The reason I grow is because I am searching for the highest quality things. I guess you can call it a chef approach to farming. For example: If you were to take an X-ray of all of our tomato plants at the farm, you would see all of the fish carcasses that we saved in the freezer for a year underneath the plants in the soil. I look to influence flavor through whatever I do. Another example of how I try to do this is by pumping apple cider vinegar into the water that I use for our blueberries. I even put a little bit of fish sauce into the water for our chickens because I think it has a little bit of an impact on the flavor of our eggs. I may harvest our carrots a little earlier because they may look better on the plate, too.
I personally felt incomplete just ordering through a restaurant order guide.
We have 250 trees of 77 varieties of fruits; name a fruit and we probably grow three different types. We have 20 different varieties of stone fruit alone. We created an orchard that jibes solely with the restaurant. If you are based in California, it is not uncommon to be able to harvest Asian pears, Bartletts, and six different styles of apples, peaches, plums, strawberries at the same time. From week to week, you can have a hundred pounds of something completely different. Not to mention that when you have a relationship with your own food like this, it really does force you to live and cook with the seasons.
The reality is just that 99 percent of chefs—even those who claim to be using "local" or "farm-to-table" ingredients—are ordering through an order guide. It is not their fault at all, because the chef world is hard and they can never leave the kitchen for too long before having to return to work again. I personally felt incomplete just ordering through an order guide. I wanted to get more in touch with what I was cooking.
Don't get me wrong, it is not easy to grow your own food. If you didn't grow up farming, you learn everything the hard way. Last year, we grew over 500 pounds of apricots. This year, we got five pounds because we had a late rain that knocked out all of the apricot blossoms, so we lost the entire harvest. We grow our own rabbit, California king pigeon, east Parisian dairy sheep, and Berkshire pigs. Still, when you run a farm as diverse as ours in California, you see that everything is struggling to survive. It is not guaranteed that your blueberries will produce, but you could try to build a better environment and ecosystem for them. Having a steady water supply is also a constant concern. This year, however, we had a really cold May, which is fantastic because that means the water will stay and not evaporate.
I know the following statement may sound like something a hippie would say, which I'm not at all, but farming your own food really makes you have the deepest respect for everything you cook and eat, especially when it comes to animals that exist solely because you brought them into this world. The best part of it all is utilizing the waste from your restaurant—carrot tops, leftover hamburger buns, whatever—to compost and put nutrients back into the earth, so everything is a cycle.
As told to Javier Cabral
Matt McNamara is the chef and co-owner of Sons & Daughters, a truly, truly farm-to-table restaurant in San Francisco.