Saturday was beautiful. I walked between the raindrops all over downtown Santa Cruz, looking for a client/friend who was hiding at one of three holidays fairs in an 8-block radius. I found her too late, and in a room too dark to photograph her wares. (More on her soon. She is Heidi Schlecht, former owner of the River Street Cafe & Cheese Shop (now owned by the talented Claire Palazzo), and Heidi has renamed her incredible preserves with the Plumline label.)
I headed over to Chocolate bistro next to Bookshop Santa Cruz, hoping to see my friend, the owner and chef, David Jackman. He was there, and we talked about the usual: friends, food, Wikileaks, our involvement with the internet and then…he was leaving. David owns a second restaurant called Backstage Kitchen, next to the Rio Theater. Originally started as a lunch-dinner venue, Backstage now only hosts private parties—absolutely delicious fare, as you can expect from David and his talented team.
Before leaving, David gave me some news, and invited me to an event that was happening that night. A new enterprise in town is Lightfoot Industries, who hosts "Supper Club" events in a pilot program for at-risk teens. The students get to train in a real restaurant, learning not only professional skills that will serve them in life, but equally important: about sustainable foodways, community, family, and excellent communication. David has generously offered his restaurant for staging the events: professional guest chefs are employed to do the cooking. The work that falls to the teens is as you'd expect: set-up, service, and so on. But it goes further than that.
See this video with founder Carmen Kubas (above)—a former colleague of mine (farm dinners) who floors me with her power and her passion and her grasp of this vision. She explains that the kids all start on a farm—I believe they're affiliated with FoodWhat!? up at the UCSC Farm and Garden. FoodWhat?! is also a youth empowerment project, and it's a match made in heaven. My heaven in particular: MY favorite farm, bringing young people into the circle of sustainability—an opportunity so few youth have these days, unless they have parents like me, who are constantly blabbering about farms and their importance.
The event itself? It was a combination of beautiful, robustly and relentlessly delicious, and it also felt like something verging on holy. I don't use the word lightly. By the end of the evening, I told Carmen that there was nowhere on earth I'd rather be, except maybe on a yacht with George Clooney, and then only if I looked like his Italian girlfriend.
The kids were on fire with sweetness and pride, as you can see in this young man's eyes. I had a chance to talk to three of the four on staff that night, and all were so aware of their blessings, and so excited to be involved with something so, well…beautiful. (Backstage is one of the prettiest restaurants in Santa Cruz.) And, hey, they're not stupid: staff meal?
Carmen says the program also includes yoga classes, journaling, and more. It is so exciting to see someone find their life's work. Nobody can fake that kind of love or passion.
I've had Chef Mike Martinez's food before, and loved it. He flies under the radar and I (HELLO, UNIVERSE) would like to see that change. David and Mike had traveled extensively in Italy when younger, and both acquired the touch with food that means each dish radiates love and respect for the ingredients. Part of Lightfoot's focus is sustainably/organically grown food—from the meat to the fruit, and all points in between.
Here's the chef. Such a nice young man. (I'm not a Jewish mother, but I play one on my blog sometimes.)
THE FOOD. OH, MY GOD, THE FOOD.
Now for the hard-to-believe part. Beautiful restaurant. Multi-course meal, served family style—freshest seasonal ingredients, all of which complemented each other so well. What would you expect to pay for a meal like that? (Beer, wine, beverages, and tip are not included.) Read on.
I've seen farm dinners that ponce out at $200, which might include wine, but that's obscene to me. I've likewise seen really nice three-to-five course meals in beautiful local restaurants (like Gabriella Café) for $50. And that, in the context of this community, is a good value.
My Supper Club dinner with Lightfoot Industries included these courses…
A tureen of roasted squash purée soup with ginger and subtle spicing…and fresh-baked rosemary croutons.
(I regret that I missed taking a photo of the salad: David and I dug in without a second thought of capturing the moment with the lens.) I also did not photograph the bowl of aromatic lentils with their slightly Middle Eastern spices.
Main course: the juiciest, most tender pork loin. Chef Mike Martinez is in the Pork Loin Pantheon of Immortals with this dish.
Slices about an inch thick.
The pork was served with these latkes. (Happy Hannukah, y'all!) These are about four inches across, with caramelized onions. Oh, joy.
Dessert was a perfumey cobbler of apples and pears—it seemed to have a hint of quince and cardamom, but that's just the magic of aromas and flavors creating a taste far greater than the sum of its parts.
Also served: Italian sodas, the syrups for which were made by the students. And they made the cranberry chutney, which went with the pork. (Note to self: bring bib before rendering camera useless with salivation and fogged up lens.)
The chef and his cohort, Scott, banged out the courses with perfect precision. I was really happy to make Scott's acquaintance. He has a job in a Silicon Valley restaurant (which he wouldn't name) but loves to be able to work in this environment—promoting all the values I mentioned above—in the service of our youth. (And our bellies.)
So. How much would you pay for this meal? No cheating: post your guesses in the comments below. If you know the answer, leave a different comment, please.
I told Carmen that I couldn't imagine anywhere else on earth I'd rather be than on a yacht with George Clooney, and then only if I looked like his Italian girlfriend. True.
Carmen's got the vision and the structure for this program to be in place around the nation. I feel strongly that it has a place in our world, and am going to be sharing this with every strong player in the food world that I can think of. I want them to help spread the word. Or at least come to dinner in Santa Cruz.
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Gosh, I love hashtags now. I'm on Twitter as @tanabutler. I don't stick to farm stuff there, particularly, and I do get to exercise my salty alto persona a lot more.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "The rich would have to eat money if the poor did not provide food." —Russian Proverb
Thanks for visiting! I am so inspired right now. Praying it lasts. It feels so good to spread good news.