Restaurant News & Reviews

Heroes of farm-to-fork: Watanabe Farms scales back

Their story together began at Tower Records on Broadway in the mid-1990s, many years before anyone was downloading music or eating kale. She was working the cash register. He was returning a cassette tape.

Maybe it was the twinkle in her eye, which remains to this day, or something about his quiet confidence and power-lifter’s physique that sparked an interest. They went out on a date, then another, and it wasn’t long before they fell in love and got married.

In 1997, Heidi and Clark Watanabe set out to be farmers on a modest 7-acre plot of land tucked into West Sacramento that had been in Clark’s family for four generations.

“When I met Clark, I didn’t even like vegetables. I didn’t like tomatoes. Can you believe that? Can you believe that I didn’t know what a real tomato tasted like?” Heidi said with a playful voice and big smile.

Given what has transpired, it’s hard to fathom, indeed. The Watanabes started small, worked hard, took pride in all they did and felt an obligation to provide the best possible quality for their customers, whether dropping off produce through the back door of restaurants or standing behind a folding table at the Sunday farmers market.

All these years later, Heidi Watanabe is practically synonymous with tomatoes and the Watanabes are among the most revered folks in the local food community. In restaurants throughout the region, it is not uncommon to find “Heidi Watanabe tomatoes” listed on the menus, a sign that the kitchen is serious about quality, freshness and flavor.

“Clark and Heidi are the epitome of what a true small farmer is all about,” said Randall Selland, the co-founder of The Kitchen Restaurant, Ella Dining Room and Bar, Selland’s Market-Cafe and OBO’ Italian Table & Bar. “They love what they do. They want to please their customers. They’re just wonderful people.”

Now, to the dismay of many, they are scaling back considerably. For the first time since they launched their farming way of life, they have not done a second planting, meaning that come September, when the last of the tomatoes have ripened, the summer squash has come and gone and the peach trees are barren, they will end their fruit and vegetable production.

Weary of the long days and all the aches and pains that come with crouching and climbing and reaching for hours on end, the Watanabes are ready to start a new chapter in their lives.

“You get to deal with the customers and the chefs and they tell you how much they love your product, but the downside of that is you have no life. You’re working seven days a week, 14- to 16-hour days,” said Heidi, 43.

The Watanabe farm started with modest goals and grew into something special – some would call it magical – and developed a serious following. They never had to go looking for customers. Word spread and chefs tracked them down. The couple credit Selland with launching their dreams. He was their first customer and the one who recognized what they were onto.

“I think I saw Heidi the first time she was at the market,” said Selland, recalling those early days when he was emerging as Sacramento’s culinary impresario at The Kitchen. “I just loved her stuff. I knew what she was selling. It was exciting to be able to buy something of that quality and take it back to The Kitchen, show the people and tell them where they can find it.”

Heidi is the one who makes deliveries and interacts with chefs, and she’s usually eating on the fly. Often, chefs will hand her a dish to eat as she’s standing and transacting business. Clark, 49, prefers to remain behind the scenes.

While Sacramento has scored major points in recent years as “America’s Farm-To-Fork Capital,” few people get to see all the work that brings that slogan to life.

“A lot of people have a romantic idea of what it’s like to be a farmer,” said Heidi as she stood among the rows of tomato vines on a day the temperature climbed into triple digits. “The reality is we put in 14-hour days for six months a year, whether it’s 105 degrees or pouring down rain.”

Farming takes a toll on the body. Still trim and muscular, Clark used to be a devoted power-lifter. At 200 pounds in his heyday, he bench-pressed 415 pounds and his squat topped out at 603 pounds. But he injured his leg on the farm and he struggles with a chronic bad back, an occupational hazard for farmers who insist on planting, pruning and picking everything themselves. Out among his plants, Clark chooses the peace and tranquility of the farm over the chaos and strife of the real world. Now 25 pounds lighter, he enjoys yoga over hoisting iron.

“I stopped watching the news. It’s not like a head-in-the-sand thing. It’s just depressing,” he said with a shrug.

For all of their renown, the Watanabes are so busy, they rarely get to eat in the top-notch restaurants that use their produce or attend foodie events with movers and shakers. Last year was the first time they had ever eaten at the highly regarded Waterboy, a longtime customer.

Far from a technique-driven gourmet, Clark prepares the two summer squash he eats a day by warming them in the microwave for four minutes.

While Heidi is the name and face to most people who have heard about the Watanabe touch, few know about Clark’s passion, knowledge and instincts for bringing out the best in fruits and vegetables and for picking them at just the right time. Except for a fungicide they use in the winter on the fruit trees, all of the produce is organic.

“I’m just the face,” said Heidi. “Everybody says it’s Heidi’s tomatoes, but Heidi wouldn’t exist without Clark. Clark has the magic touch. He says what we do and when we do it. Sometimes I’ll walk into a restaurant to make a delivery and a chef will say, ‘Heidi, it’s 9:30 at night. What are you doing?’ And I’ll just tell them, ‘This is what fresh looks like.’ 

She added: “I don’t want to say anything mean about other farmers, but a lot of them go through produce companies. You can’t say, ‘Hey, I just picked that an hour ago.’ I do that all the time. I walked into a couple of restaurants yesterday and the peaches were still hot in the box because they hadn’t even been in there an hour.”

Asked about the secret of his tomatoes, all 30 varieties, Clark shrugs and says, “I don’t really know. I just do what I do.”

“When the tomatoes start to get some color, I know he stops watering. That’s his secret,” chimed in Heidi.

“That’s what she thinks is my secret,” Clark said mischievously.

He said much of what he knows about farming is intuitive by now. He has absorbed that knowledge and passion since he was a child. Much of it came from his late grandfather, Mac Nakayama, and grandmother, Mary Nakayama, who died about three years ago. The farm has been in the family for 70 years.

Asked if he was torn about winding down much of the farming operation, given the family legacy, Clark shrugged and said, “Everything has to end sometime.”

But the legacy is sure to remain for years to come. As Sacramento emerges as a town known for its farming and restaurants, the names of farmers are starting to become more familiar. This year, the fourth annual Tower Bridge dinner gala in September will pair five top chefs with regional farmers to underscore the farm-to-fork way of cooking and eating.

The Grange’s Oliver Ridgeway, who oversaw the Tower Bridge dinner in 2015, is one of the Watanabes’ biggest advocates.

“I have been buying from them since I got here five years ago,” the chef said. “They have kept it very authentic in the way that they farm. They are so passionate about their product. They are the sole unit delivering some of Sacramento’s greatest product.

“The tomatoes – a lot of people say they are some of the best in the region. I will be sad to see that go. They are beautiful. They are pristine. They are just bursting with flavor.”

Beyond the hard work and attention to detail, what sets the Watanabes apart is their high standards. They deliver nothing short of perfection. In fact, they recently donated 700 pounds of summer squash to Loaves & Fishes because it was a day or two past its prime.

“What I really love about it is the amount of respect they have for their food – how they treat it and how it comes to you,” said Mathew Kurtz, executive chef for Eurest, which operates a large corporate dining facility in Folsom. Due to the client’s policy, Eurest is not permitted to name the company for publication. “Heidi has taught me so much about how the produce should be displayed and packaged so it can maintain its quality.”

Asked about the key to their tomatoes, Kurtz said, “The flavor. They don’t pick them until they’re perfect – every single one of them the same. They have a way of knowing when the vegetable or fruit is at its peak. We’re going to miss their commitment. I have suggested this to them – I hope they go into consulting.”

Heidi says that reputation means everything to her and Clark and is hard-earned. After all these years, it’s what they stand for; it’s who they are.

“The one thing I’ll miss the most is people saying ‘That’s the best tomato I’ve ever eaten.’ That’s kind of what keeps me going,” said the woman who once worked at Tower Records and disliked tomatoes.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob