By: Sheen Fischer
As with all things worth doing, the success of any venture starts in the prep. In the case of the 4th installment of The Farmers, Friends and Fishermen Dinner hosted in Mission Hills, the argument can be made that the prep for this event started five years ago when the owners first started their backyard garden for the Red Door, venue for the night festivities.
In the case of this little oinker, centerpiece of the dinner and provided by Sage Mountain Farm, the prep started fully 24 hours before the dinner. Red Door owner Trish Watlington, Event Coordinator Kelsey Doonan and my own Doll, Dee, gather around the next evening’s main event as it is being prepped in the caja china (chinese box) by Executive Chef Karrie Hills with fresh herbs, vegetables, spices from the garden and a liberal lacquering of URBN St. Bravecourt Stout.
In case you were wondering how the pig got in the box… Yes, it was a total chick fest. Look, I offered to help – really. I won’t say that my offer was so much met with a sneer of disdain as completely ignored. Either way, cool with me. First of all, these ladies knew what they were doing. Secondly, what if I got grease and fat all over my hands and then my camera got dirty?
This was my last look at this baby before the other half was placed on top. I saw her dressed and undressed and I have to say, I much prefer her with her clothes on…
While the girls were working on the pig and the fire, I did more manly stuff like strolling through the garden with Trish. Did I say garden? My Dad had a great little backyard garden in which we spent many hours fertilizing, pulling weeds, tilling, hoeing, planting and watering when I was a teenager in a dubious semi-successful attempt to keep me out of trouble. Dad’s garden was about ½ the size of what’s shown in this picture…which captures perhaps ¼ of Trish’s garden. Here she works with the help of a friend for about 30 hours a week, providing as much as 50% – 60% of the Red Door’s produce, depending on the season.
Anyway, this, my friends, is no normal garden. I don’t know if there’s a level of existence between garden and farm, but this is either a Garden Supreme or a Farmette. And, by the way, the little white boxes in the far right background are beehives, cared for by Trish’s husband and restaurant co-owner, Tom. You know, because they don’t have enough to do between running two restaurants (The Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge adjoins The Red Door and shares the kitchen and Executive Chef) with their son and General Manager Justin, Tom’s holding down a full time Executive position at a Bio Tech company and taking care of this monolith.
As seemingly boundless as this sea of North Georgia Candy Roaster squash is Trish’s energy. As current president of the Mission Hills Business Improvement District and Board member of Olivewood Gardens and the Berry Good Food Foundation, Trish is also a driven and active advocate for nutritional, health, economic and environmental benefits of providing locally grown and produced food to local consumers. Oh, and did I mention she handles the marketing and public outreach for the restaurant, too? I barely have the energy to write about everything she’s doing.
With the sharp striking of mineral hard flint on the surface of the malleable, durable, tough, strength of steel, it takes the creation of only a few sparks on the right fuel to create anything from a slow burn to a raging conflagration.
Red Door Executive Chef Karrie Hills, it would seem, is comprised of equal parts of flint and steel that continuously ignite an inner blaze which far eclipses anything approaching ordinary drive or passion. I didn’t so much sit or stand while talking with her as much as chase her around while she bounded from place to place around the pig. Raw energy aside, it is the intensity with which she conveys her deep conviction for all that is nutritional, sustainable and healthy while still plating beautiful, approachable and flavorful food which is, frankly, a bit breathtaking.
Chef Karrie is, all in the same breath, a study in contrast and consistency. She rails against those who wrongfully use the farm to table label while applauding those who seem to be taking even the tiniest step in the right direction. She lauds those small farms and local providers from which she sources her daily ingredients and scoffs at the bureaucracy that threatens their very existence. She has worked the five star, big show, large box, commercial restaurant scene, been to culinary school and learned classical technique, yet she has found her place producing her style of food with local and sustainable ingredients in a small family restaurant group in a tight knit community.
Her menus change daily, not so much on paper, but in the kitchen where she executes the menu for two restaurants with no sous chef and a total crew of eight people – four daytime and four evening. Her style of rustic cooking using classical technique has been masterfully adapted to also using whatever is fresh and available from her local providers, seemingly blending into a completely new genre of Heritage cuisine. In her words, when you order a salad from her menu, you’ll get a salad, but the lettuce, the tomatoes, the vegetables and even the dressing used in the salad will be dependent on that days harvest and not on the menu description. Let me know if you’ve got a problem with that – I want to be there with my camera when you tell her so…
So, while Chef Karrie probably did not start the fire on top of the caja china where our little porky friend was laid to rest by using her inner flame or x-ray vision, my zippo was in my pocket the whole time and I wasn’t there when the flames actually got going, so I couldn’t swear to it.
The evening’s festivities were held in the Red Door dining room. It is adorned elegantly but comfortably. On this evening, tables were pushed together to facilitate family style dining, but on a normal evening, there are plenty of two tops for date night and casual diners to take advantage of. I should have asked, but I’m going to have to guess that the dining room would seat about 50-60 if filled at capacity. The regular menu has a nice specialty cocktail selection and the bar was utilized well for this event to present this refreshing Gin, Pomelo, Grapefruit and simple syrup concoction with fresh basil leaf for aroma.
Most of the courses for the evening were served family style. This was one of the two starters of the night, roasted Yellowtail collars provided by Catalina Offshore Products. They were luscious, tender and moist, enhanced by the herbs but with the natural, slightly briny flavor of the fish being the star.
I don’t know who provided the squash blossoms, but if they run for president, I’ll vote for them (seriously, considering our choices this election, that’s an easy one, but I don’t talk politics over food). These were stuffed with an herbed goat cheese, deep fried to a light crispiness then topped with an herby emulsion that I can only guess at – parsley, basil, lemon juice, olive oil…? Oh, man, Chef is going to cut me… In my defense, the whole point of a great chef combining ingredients to create great flavors pretty much renders the identification of said individual flavors fairly unrecognizable by mere mortals, doesn’t it? That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The official start of the meal was a Cucumber Lime Gazpacho with uni and baja shrimp. Fruits and Veggies were provided by Sage Mountain Farm while the seafood was courtesy of Catalina Offshore Products. If it weren’t for the uni and shrimp getting in the way, I could have chugged this glass of slightly acidic fresh goodness in a microsecond. Fortunately, the uni and shrimp did get in the way, not as the stars of the dish, but as a distraction, allowing for alternating sips and bites, marrying the flavors so as to experience them fully.
All of the evening’s courses were paired with URBN St. beers. Alternative wine pairings were offered for those who didn’t partake of the hops. For this course, the Jumbo x 2 I.P.A. surprisingly was not overpowering. Instead, the earthy bitterness of the hops were an appropriate offset to the acid in the Gazpacho.
Let’s start with the pastry on this Caramelized Onion and Eggplant Tart (courtesy of Connelly Gardens) – flaky and slightly crispy on juuust a millimeter of the exterior before dissolving into whatever it is that a pastry decides to be when it melts perfectly in your mouth. The tart itself contained figs as well as the caramelized onions, but surprisingly was not overly sweet. Somehow, the eggplant was woven into the dish so that it was present and accounted for, but undercover. The texture of the eggplant and figs was similar, and, while the figs seemed to have the more prevalent flavor, it is the eggplant that somehow slid under the radar and influenced the dish toward the savory side without screaming, “Here I Am!”
URBN’s Saison contributed acid to the dish to clear the palate after each bite and wash away any residual pastry that, while sumptuous, might become cloying if not properly treated.
Backstory: When I reached out to Trish to cover the dinner, I asked if I could get into the kitchen before the event and have a few minutes with Chef Karrie. Now, I completely understand her reticence and reluctance to allow that – it has to do with life and limb insurance, mostly. That’s how we ended up in her driveway the night before where there was plenty of room to run.
Feeling a little ballsy after what I deemed a successful prior evening, I asked again when I arrived for the evening’s meal if I could sneak back there for a minute or two. I don’t know if it was disgust or resignation on her face when she shook her head and told me in very certain terms that it was not going to happen.
By the time the main course came around, though, things were going pretty well. The family style dining had everyone joking, laughing, discussing, cheering and hooting. What started off as a formal celebration of all that is local, sustainable and organic had (gasp) turned into a social dinner party.
And that’s when it happened…I got the nod and the wave of the hand from Chef Karrie. “Come on, Sheen, let’s go.” BAM! I made it into the hallowed grounds of Chef Karrie’s kitchen! Selfie high five right here. The only thing that could out do the joy on my face was the joy on hers when she showed me the plate of Pig, Figs and Stout that had been 24 hours in the making.
There are very few ways you could ever serve me tender, herbacious, juicy slow cooked meat that I wouldn’t enjoy. I mean, really. But, take this naturally grown pig from Sage Mountain Farm, literally bury it in fresh herbs, seasonings and vegetables, roast it under a fire for 4 hours and then let it rest for another eight…are you kidding me? Since when did meat start melting in your mouth?
Accompany some moist, juicy, tender pork with a fresh heirloom tomato, pepper and basil salad with a (what else?) warm bacon vin and you can put me in the caja china and send me to my eternal resting place. Please spread my ashes somewhere that I can smell food…
There were some house made cheddar biscuits with a bacon jam served with this as well, but by this point in the meal, you were either going to lose a finger or gain a biscuit depending on the speed at which you moved your hand. I chose to gain a biscuit and lose a picture. Shoot me. It was a damn fine biscuit and the jam was even better. You should probably go next year if you actually want to see everything.
Anyway, the produce for this dish was provided by Connelly Gardens and our elegant tablemates, Archi’s Acres. URBN’s Brown Ale – it was good. But that was to be expected. And, let’s face it, Miss Piggy needed her moment.
Everything you thought a brownie should be – this one was. Semi-sweet. Moist, dense with a certain airiness, chewy, but not so that it stuck to the upper inside of your teeth. But what was most interesting is the picture that is missing – the Avocado milkshake.
By this point it was a free for all – plates and glasses were barely touching the table before they were snatched through a wormhole into someone’s mouth. There was little room left at any table to get a good shot. The sun had gone down and the lighting was bad… I could keep this up all day.
Anyway, I just couldn’t figure out how to frame a wine glass full of green milkshake. But, oh my. Made with vanilla sheep’s milk from Taj farm, high in natural fat content, the Archi’s Acres avocado became like an avocado on steroids, the flavor exacerbated by the creamy fat of the sheep’s milk with a creamy, smooth texture which allowed the brownie to slide down the gullet unfettered.
URBN’s Mazagran Triple Brown was notable with this dish. Definitely on the dessert side of beers, it had body and heft to it so as to hold its own against the richness of the brownie with overpowering or altering the flavors.
And when the evening ended, though the sun had left us hours before, I reflected back to all I had learned during Golden Hour in Trish’s garden the previous evening – of the devotion and toil it takes to get this food out of the ground and off of the land. The logistics and bureaucracy it takes to support those who are working so hard to get it right. Of those that aren’t getting it all right but are figuring out the path to get there.
And I can only hope that amidst the struggle, for it is a battle of natural vs. enhanced, local vs. mass market, standards vs. profit, that those who are working so diligently on our behalf as consumers, doing everything within their means to ensure a fresh, sustainable food source for generations to come can find a moment or two to enjoy the beauty of what they are creating. Cheers, my friends.
741 W. Washington Street
San Diego, CA 92103