Food in America had become so remote, so industrialized, so removed from the land and from the spirit that a countermovement developed in recent years to make what we eat more personal, local, and knowable again. This movement is coming in several waves and is growing throughout the United States, but no more so than in California, which is as rich in farmland as it is in ideas. Recent work by two filmmakers who teach at Santa Clara explore two manifestations of that trend.
It all started with tomatoes
The Farmer and the Chef, directed by Michael Whalen ’89, premiered at the Cinequest festival in San Jose in March (with an encore screening following the first sold-out showing) and was the first film to play at the reopened Los Gatos Theatre in April. Whalen is the Knight-Ridder/San Jose Mercury News Endowed Professor of Communication at SCU. Filmed during the course of several years, this most recent of his documentaries delves into the partnership between David Kinch, the chef and owner of the highly regarded restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, and Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz. The film details an association that’s more than a collaboration but rather a symbiosis, in which each side draws from, benefits, and is influenced by the other.
The specifics of their economic relationship is shrouded in some secrecy, but the documentary gives us its basic outline. Apparently, it all started with tomatoes. After the chef started buying Sandberg’s tomatoes—which look beautiful and real, not dyed red and dead—a deal was soon struck. Sandberg realized that the only way that made economic sense was for Manresa to pay a flat rate in exchange for access to whatever was on the farm, and Kinch agreed.
For both, it was ideal. As Kinch explains on camera, he is not interested in the latest culinary fads but in developing dishes that are true to the region and that allow the food and the ingredients to express themselves. He wants to create dining experiences that could only happen on the Central Coast of California, in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. Love Apple Farms, just 15 minutes away from the restaurant, was the perfect food source, tailored to his needs.
The film shows Kinch walking around the terraced vegetable patches and deciding what to make for dinner that night. (Food novices might imagine the reverse, that a chef would go in knowing what he’s looking for, but this process is much more dynamic and true to the seasons.) Gradually, Love Apple grows into a larger location, and the partnership becomes more enmeshed and involved. Sandberg knows that she has to come up with a steady flow of produce for all 365 days of the year, so the planting schedule is intricate. And Kinch knows that he has to come up with recipes for the more than 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables that Sandberg is growing. Can you even name 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables?
The filmmaker does not allude to the personal lives of either the farmer or the chef, with the implication that each of their paths are full-time passions. Kinch’s eyes look as driven and haunted as those of any great painter, sculptor, or musician. And though, as Kinch says, the relationship between the restaurant and the farm isn’t about politics but quality, it’s hard not to see Kinch and Sandberg as doing something that’s beyond food, too, that’s in service of a higher principle.
Just know: If you see the movie, you will have to eat at Manresa, sooner or later. Start saving now.
(And be sure to call for reservations; just as the print edition of this story went to press, Manresa suffered a fire that will likely have the restaurant closed for a few months.)
Got goat milk?
Cease and Desist: The Story of Small Family Farms in the Age of Big Ag and Big Brother deals with four Northern California farms that are facing terrible obstacles, with the government trying to shut them down. Why? They produce raw milk. Even when they’re not selling the milk but just producing it for themselves and a tight collective, the government is sending cease and desist letters and even, in at least one case, a SWAT team. It’s an example of regulations run amok—or at least being improperly applied—and of the wrong people being targeted for punishment.
The film, by husband-and-wife team Yahia Mahamdi and Cynthia Mahamdi, premiered at SCU last fall. Yahia is an associate professor of communication, and Cynthia is a senior lecturer in English. Gracefulness and balance doesn’t seem to have been the intent here but rather getting the word out. You won’t hear the argument against raw milk or the counterargument refuting it. But to look at the faces of these dejected farmers is to understand why the Mahamdis made this film and to be glad they did.