Blue Skies, Strawberries And Ruth Reichl

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It’s ironic how one stalking adventure leads to another. That magic pixie dust is always floating about when I least expect it. While dining at The Factory Kitchen, I met “Francina” who told me about a farm in the rolling hills of Rancho Santa Fe; run by Japanese-Americans, the Chino family (the japanese surname is written in japanese characters on workers’ T-shirts at the farm). It’s famous for supplying vegetables to Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, amongst other well-known chefs and markets. It’s a fantastic place for food lovers like moi, nibbling on samples, buying produce and the inevitable subject of visiting food writers. From French strawberries to corn on the cob, purple carrots to white beets, herbs, lettuces, watermelon and squash blossoms, Chino’s is revolving art gallery of edible nature!

Family owned and run for generations, they’re meticulous about quality and presentation. The beauty of each individual piece of produce is fleeting but stunning while it lasts. Francina invited this food warrior to meet Ruth Reichl at the farm. Ruth is an American Food writer and the last editor-in-chief of the now shuttered Gourmet magazine. She has written a trilogy of best-selling memoirs and cookbooks, winning acclaim with readers and writers alike for her honesty about some not-so-fabulous aspects of haute cuisine. She was a restaurant editor, critic and food editor for the Los Angeles Times, returning to her native New York City to become restaurant critic for The New York Times. In my opinion, food writers are the back bone of the food industry. They are the never sleeping author’s, photographers, publishers, food historians and connoisseurs on a quest. They are the under-belly of the food and wine industry, the food stalkers of the subconscious, sharing top secrets that would put the CIA to shame. Sorry, I got totally excited here!

Why Chino’s has such a special place in her heart

“Alice Waters and I helped pick strawberries for desert at Chez Panisse one evening before heading home. We got onto a small plane with two flats of fresh strawberries. You probably don’t remember this thing that looked like styrofoam that was white in middle, with no fragrance or flavor. Well, the scent of those berries rose up and filled the entire plane to the point where people came over and begged for strawberries. They all said something to the effect of, “I had forgotten what strawberries smelled like and I want to know what they taste like”. As I watched Alice give away desert that night at the restaurant (at one point I asked her what we were going to serve for desert) she stated, “How can you not share this?”. That was a real “ah ha” moment for me and I thought, American food has got to change. We can do this and we have got to get back to that place where we are doing it. Back then Chino Farms was the only place in America to get a decent strawberry. It’s extraordinary now that there are so many wonderful farmers who are rasing great fruits and vegetables all over this country. We are taking back our heritage. The Chino’s have been a very important part of the food revolution we didn’t even know was taking place”.

Inspiration for the Novel “Delicious”

“When Gourmet Magazine closed, I was on book tour in Seattle for The Gourmet cookbook. I got a call to return to New York and we were told Gourmet was over. My staff packed up to find new jobs. I was on the road promoting the cook book and came back to empty my office. It was a scene of incredible devastation. I went to the only place that had not been trashed, the magazine library, and saw a stainless steel cabinet I’d never seen before. Upon opening it, I found every letter the magazine had ever received. Mind you, they weren’t great letters – most were recipes and complaints, (laughing) but I thought, perhaps there is a great history of American food here. I don’t know where it came from, it was one of those gifts you get as a writer. I sat down and wrote “The Letters from Lulu”, the letters from Akron, Ohio to James Beard (who had worked at Gourmet) asking for help in cooking. That was the beginning of the novel. When I was ready to start the book, I had these letters and built the book around it”.
Holy chicken feed, I didn’t intend to spend the day eating strawberry (heartberry) shortcake with puffy clouds of cream, listening to bluegrass music, drooling over fresh produce. Let’s just say they know how to turn even a pesky stalker like me into a stalking fan. If I could have hauled a truck load of berries back to Laguna, I would have.

One thing is certain, Chino Farms combined with the opportunity to meet Ruth Reichl, well, let’s just say it was delicious…

PS: Ruth, impressed with your “carry on” packing technique…you taught this fashionista a thing or two.:)


  1. Fran Prince

    May 26, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    You captured the “essence of the event” with your “fabulous photos” & your “sandie style” characteristic observations.

    • thefoodstalker

      May 28, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      Fran, I look forward to coming to Chino Farms again soon and seeing you. Thanks for the yummy berries!

With an Italian background, she cites her Mother and grandmother ( Mamie ) as the major influence of her love for food.  Yes, homemade pasta hung from the clothesline in the kitchen and rolling 100 meat balls for a holiday dinner was the norm.  Raised in Pennsylvania. she spent time in Atlanta, Georgia and ultimately settled along the stunning coast of Laguna Beach, Ca. Self taught in everything, she learned to appreciate the amazing flavors, scents and uses for exotic herbs and spices and applies her knowledge to cooking today. Despite enjoying other creative endeavors like painting, photography and clothing design, she realized she would never love another career the way she loves all the stories surrounding food.  And it's capturing those stories that has not only become her greatest passion but a culinary drug worth passing around!  After all, food is a shared experience and no one better to share it with than the entire world. And thus the Food Stalker was born, utilizing all that passion and her fearlessness to capture even the most impossible stories. It's one thing to write about food, but far more exciting to actually capture it and all those stories that make every scent come to life.  And once she sets out, there's no stopping her, because no one follows that scent better than her---and no telling where she'll end up next.  

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