You can't throw a stone in Central California without hitting something fresh, local, and organic. Between Santa Cruz and Big Sur, a new wave of restaurateurs is making the most of the bounty, bringing farm to table more flavorfully than ever before.

By Jacob Baynham
December 01, 2014

The value of fresh, local food isn’t reserved for the individual diner, as I discovered at Esalen Institute, a Big Sur landmark set between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the sea. Esalen has offered retreats and workshops exploring “human potential” since 1962. A three-acre farm and garden helps feed its community—300 people at any given time. Apprentices and staff tend the fields, beginning their day at 7 a.m. with meditation and stretching in the flower garden. The Institute calls it “relational agriculture,” where nurturing oneself is as important as cultivating the fields.

Left: Volunteer farmhand Ian Peric at Esalen Institute

Photo: Jessica Sample

Salt is in season on California's central coast. I might have expected the field-ripened strawberries, or the plump avocados sold seven for a dollar at roadside stands. I may have imagined the king salmon—succulent and pink, and fresh off the trawlers rocking in Monterey Bay—or the farmers' market peaches, so juicy they practically detonate in your mouth. But of all the bounty I had envisioned before my road trip from Santa Cruz to Big Sur, the salt caught me by surprise.

Salt has a season? It does if you're Robert Kirkland of the Monterey Bay Salt Company. Kirkland got into the business five years ago while surfing with friends. As they straddled their boards and waited for waves, someone pointed out the sea salt crusting on their wet suits, and wondered aloud if anything could be done with it. Kirkland went home, had a cold beer, and built a small tray that he filled with seawater. Two weeks later, the water had evaporated, and he had fresh salt crystals.

Today, Kirkland evaporates about 4,000 pounds of salt per year in five greenhouses from King City to Big Sur. He starts with pristine seawater from Monterey Bay. He pours the water into trays, and the sun does the rest. His salt houses need to be 110 degrees for ideal evaporation, so salt season is summer, when the temperature is right and the breeze is just so.

"It's just like a good wine," he tells me one afternoon in Carmel Valley, as I crunch down on a few tongue-tingling crystals. "It picks up characteristics from its environment."

Kirkland sells some of the salt fresh to local chefs. The rest he stores in old Cabernet barrels, or mixes into special blends with dried citrus and wild peppercorns that he forages himself. And word is spreading. "It's really starting to take off," he says. Kirkland now sells his salt varieties to Whole Foods stores, as well as to specialty shops in New York City, Japan, and China. The demand is as deep as Monterey Bay.

This is what it's like to live and eat in Central California, where fresh, local food is so prevalent that you can even source your salt from the bay in which you surf. At Lokal, a gourmet hot spot in Carmel Valley, for example, chef Brendan Jones picks his produce fresh from his mother's garden—a far cry from my home in western Montana, where for most of the year our only fresh produce is unloaded from the bellies of 18-wheelers. It's vaguely unsettling to wander the supermarket aisles in darkest winter and find red tomatoes, green peppers, and yellow squash—ripe reminders that however bleak it is outside, it's still summer somewhere. More often than not, the vegetable stickers tell me that it's summer in California. So my wife and I planned a road trip along California's central coast—a breadbasket within America's breadbasket—and saw it as a pilgrimage to the fields that feed us. We dug out our warm-weather clothes, and flew to San Jose.

The rhapsody of our arrival would have made a local laugh. The first thing we saw when we shuffled off our plane was a riot of purple jacaranda in full bloom out the window. We rented a car and oohed and aahed our way over the hill to Santa Cruz, the highway median an embarrassment of flowers. "Bottlebrush!" we'd exclaim. "Bougainvillea!" We rolled down the windows and let the humid, fragrant air wash over our faces.

It seemed logical to start our tour in Santa Cruz, home to the University of California's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, ground zero for organic farming in America. Pulling into town, we headed for Pacific Avenue, a leafy strip where buskers peddle art and Greenpeace activists ply passersby for signatures. We found the Café Campesino, a tiny converted information kiosk under shady sycamores where Dina Torres makes fresh tortillas and organic farmhouse Mexican food. Our enchiladas tasted fresh out of a Mexican abuela's kitchen. We washed them down with organic strawberry juice and watched Santa Cruz amble by. Nobody looked rushed.

The carefree vibe sunk in even deeper the next morning, when I took a walk along the cliffs on the California Coastal Trail. Even at sunrise, the trail was busy with bikers, dog walkers, and runners. Retirees sat on the cliff tops and cast shrimp for rockfish. Sea lions barked from under the wharf. Down in the surf, locals paddled longboards out to a break near the lighthouse. In their black wet suits, they looked like cormorants dipping in and out of the waves. I breathed in a lungful of the salty air and felt the Montana winter ebb a little farther out to sea.

But Santa Cruz was just our first course of Central California's cornucopia. After breakfast at Zachary's, where a diverse crowd meets for organic tofu scrambles, sourdough pancakes, oatmeal-molasses French toast, and jalapeño cornbread, we drove down the coast toward Monterey, passing strawberry fields and stands selling cherries, apricots, and artichokes. Kids flew kites on the dunes, and the ocean was blanketed in whitecaps.

In the quaint town of Pacific Grove, we met Todd Champagne, the green-eyed owner of Happy Girl Kitchen, a café off Cannery Row that is now the only working cannery in Monterey County. Anyone who's ever grown zucchini knows that abundance can be overwhelming. Champagne has the solution: canning. "We do it the way everybody's grandma did it—in speckled, enamel canning pots," he says, showing us the kitchen, where the peak-season local produce is preserved in jars of spicy pickled carrots, blood orange marmalades, honeyed pears, quince cordials, and more. There are no carefully guarded trade secrets here—Champagne teaches community canning classes and happily gives away his recipes. "We want to show people what's possible," he says. "It's a better way to get through the winter."

Winter was a distant memory when we sat down for dinner at Passionfish, a Pacific Grove restaurant dedicated to fresh, sustainable seafood. Its owners, Cindy and Ted Walter, were involved with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program at its inception, helping educate diners about ethical seafood choices. Cindy's father and grandfather were both fishermen, and as a girl she watched the trawlers unload their nets, dropping out pieces of coral, rocks, and fish big and small. "My father would tell us they were destroying the ocean, and we wouldn't be able to fish much longer," she says. "By the time we opened the restaurant in 1997," Ted adds, "there were hardly any local fish available."

That tide is turning, fortunately, toward smarter regulations and better-informed consumers. The smoked trout ceviche, fried Point Reyes oysters, and king salmon we ate were all proof that sustainable seafood is some of the most delicious, too.

We found perhaps the most memorable meal of the trip farther down the coast at Pacific's Edge, a restaurant perched on a cliff in Carmel with a glass wall that ensures every table an ocean view. Chef Matt Bolton says he couldn't have found a better place to cook. "We're pretty spoiled with the bounties that we have," he says. Bolton sources his ingredients from local farmers, fishermen, and foragers. He buys his fish straight off the boat. "You're cutting out a middleman, and also a few days on the fish," he says. And he buys wild leeks, miner's lettuce, and mushrooms from a secretive forager who lives off the grid in Big Sur. "'My mushroom man,'" Bolton calls him. "He picks only the primo mushrooms."

The quality of each ingredient was evident in course after course. We ate abalone farmed under the Monterey wharf, soy-glazed ahi, Monterey salmon in a Chardonnay sauce, smoked Sonoma duck, and tender Wagyu beef. As we shifted in our seats to make room for the last bites, the sun dropped into the Pacific. Waves burst like fireworks on the rocks below us.

The value of fresh, local food isn't reserved for the individual diner, as I discovered at Esalen Institute, a Big Sur landmark set between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the sea. Esalen has offered retreats and workshops exploring "human potential" since 1962. A three-acre farm and garden helps feed its community—300 people at any given time. Apprentices and staff tend the fields, beginning their day at 7 a.m. with meditation and stretching in the flower garden. The Institute calls it "relational agriculture," where nurturing oneself is as important as cultivating the fields.

Happy farmers make for happy harvests, and it's Esalen chef Phillip Burrus's good fortune to turn those harvests into meals. Burrus relishes cooking with ingredients picked a stone's throw from his kitchen. The lettuce is still warm from the sun when it hits his cutting board; this is as close as farm and table get. "It's pretty much paradise," Burrus says. "It's easy to do here. We're in the epicenter. This is the salad bowl of the whole country."

When we circled back to Santa Cruz at the end of our trip, I realized Central California's local food movement is a celebration of community, too. Great food happens when chefs, farmers, winemakers, butchers, and bakers all know each other. These relationships are the driving force behind two local restaurateurs, Kendra Baker and Zachary Davis. Baker and Davis started four years ago with The Penny Ice Creamery, a from-scratch ice-cream parlor that blends inspired flavors like crème fraîche rhubarb with local, organic ingredients. "We wanted to make a space where people wanted to spend time—a community hub," Baker says.

Baker and Davis later opened The Picnic Basket on the waterfront, which serves up gourmet salads and sandwiches on local Companion Bakery bread, with El Salchichero meats and house-made mayonnaise. They just opened Assembly, a farm-to-table restaurant on Pacific Avenue. Elk antler chandeliers hang above communal tables that underline their philosophy: Great food brings people together. "This is our idea for a place where we hope Santa Cruz will gather," Baker says.

As we sat down at Assembly for our last meal in California, it was clearly working. While we ate kale-and-kraut salads and perfect plates of salmon, the restaurant filled with families, couples, and friends young and old. The food was so fresh, the chatter so contented, and the evening air so clear and warm that it hardly seemed possible that winter could exist anywhere.