Restaurant News & Reviews

Feast Q&A: A Sacramento winter menu preview

Suzanne Peabody Ashworth makes a habit of introducing area chefs to unusual produce grown on her farm.
Suzanne Peabody Ashworth makes a habit of introducing area chefs to unusual produce grown on her farm.

What will we be seeing on the winter menus at some of Sacramento’s best restaurants?

Suzanne Peabody Ashworth has a pretty good idea. As a longtime organic farmer at her Del Rio Botanical farm in West Sacramento, she’s championed the use of seasonal produce at local restaurants. Among her customers are Mulvaney’s B&L, Esquire Grill, The Kitchen, Kru, Waterboy, Grange and many more. She also sells a “gourmet produce” community-supported agriculture box directly to home cooks. (See for details.)

Located on the banks of the Sacramento River, her Del Rio Botanical grows hundreds of varieties of vegetables, fruit and herbs. Some crops (such as Genovese basil or certain heirloom tomatoes) are specifically requested by chefs. But often Ashworth personally introduces the folks who will be cooking her produce to the unusual varieties that she grows.

To make sure they know what to do with these foods once they arrive in their kitchens, Ashworth schools restaurant staffs at her farm. They tour the fields, then have lunch, eating what they just saw growing.

Like all California farmers, she’s had to deal with drought as well as unpredictable weather. The Bee caught up with Ashworth before she headed back out to the fields.

What will diners be seeing in local restaurants this month and next?

In both November and December, we’ll have braising mix, salad mix, Lunga di Napoli squashes, Long Island cheese squashes, Rampicante squashes, purple sweet potatoes, Fuyu persimmons, Hachiya persimmons, Malabar spinach, limequats, arugula rapini, red mustard frisee, green mustard frisee, and more.

You meet with chefs regularly at your farm. What do they do during visits?

We tour the fields. It’s mandatory to taste everything. Then we eat lunch.

How do the chefs respond?

“I want this!” “I would love to cook with this!” “Wow, this is what it is!” It depends if they are by themselves or with other chefs (from other restaurants). If they are by themselves, they have more opportunity to be impressed with all of the vegetables, fruits and herbs that are available.

In general, should chefs and kitchen staff become more familiar with the challenges faced by farmers? If so, how?

It is all about fresh and local. Chefs should stop wanting stuff that isn’t available yet and concentrate on the season at hand. Chefs are always looking way too far ahead. Celebrate now, and let the future rest for a bit.

Are there any new or different produce items coming soon from your farm that diners may not be familiar with?

There are lots and lots. Achocha (Bolivian cucumber), for instance. Diners should also be willing to try something new and different.

How bad has this drought year been for local farmers such as yourself?

The drought year has been a challenge. We grew less of everything and no corn because it uses a lot of water. We did grow winter squash even though it uses a lot of water to get to the finish. We are all hoping for a wet year, but the climate – and trees – suggest that we are in a drought cycle for the long term.

What are your thoughts about Sacramento’s recent Farm-to-Fork celebration?

It was very commercialized. I would like to see more emphasis on small farms in the future, but commercialization is not a bad thing. (It was) just different than last year. We can’t compete with Save Mart and Jiffy Lube!

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

Suzanne Peabody Ashworth

Owner, Del Rio Botanical farm in West Sacramento