How A Chicago Restaurant Opening Shed Light On Struggles Of Drought-Impacted California Farmers & Chefs

frobes article 8-24-2016 photo-by robyn beck afp getty images

Sheep graze in a dry field near the town of McFarland in California’s Central Valley, August 24, 2016. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Chris Jacobson owns restaurants in Los Angeles and Chicago, he was a competitor multiple times on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” series. This is an op-ed piece written by Jacobsen as a Guest Post Writer at Forbes.com.

Sitting in the kitchen of my new restaurant in the heart of Chicago, I’m surrounded by herbs strewn across cutting boards, empty sauce containers, and a pile of pans–it’s the end of another long day at Ēma. For this California-raised chef, the last few months might be the hardest I’ve worked in my life–harder than opening my first restaurant in Los Angeles and harder than fending off my competition on Top Chef. Besides testing my stamina, this opening has deepened my appreciation for the year-round, fresh and delicious food produced by farmers in my native state of California. And I’ve come away more appreciative than ever.

California’s Optimal Growing Conditions

This is not a knock on Illinois farmers at all. But geography and climate limit the growing season to only several months a year in this part of the Midwest. Let that set in–only three months of locally grown fresh produce a year. For someone used to year-round access, that’s crazy to think about. When I go home to Los Angeles, I tell my staff at Girasol, “You have no idea how lucky you are. Treat these herbs with more respect!” I want them to know how excited they should be to work with such beautiful produce. I realize now–opening a restaurant 2,000 miles from home–my admiration began long ago.

Growing up, I still remember my mom pulling over to buy strawberries at fruit stands on the backroads of southern California. It’s a memory that is very special for me.

As we would drive by roadside farms, I would see workers in orchards picking ripe oranges, and from that young age, I developed a respect for the hard work that goes into growing food.

Later in life, a three and half year stint as a professional volleyball player in Europe had a major influence on me. I made an important discovery while I was living with a host family in Belgium. Every morning at breakfast, I’d watch as purveyors came through the back door delivering fresh vegetables, fruit, meats and dairy. These purveyors were farmers, but they were clearly also personal friends of my host family. One would bring in eggs. Another would bring in milk. Another asparagus or some seasonal vegetable depending on the time of year. One morning, I asked the host father, “You have an egg guy?” He turned to me, said matter-of-factly, “Why would I buy eggs from someone I don’t know?” I thought, that’s a very good point. It was amazing to me how close this family was to their food, which ultimately became my breakfast every morning. It’s something that has stuck with me.

The Plight of Local Farmers During the CA Drought

Fresh-local-produce

Returning from Europe, wondering what the next chapter in life would entail, I recalled this intimate relationship. When I opened Girasol in 2013, I wanted to emulate the connection to food I witnessed overseas.

I’ve spent a lot of time building what have become lasting relationships with local farmers who provide many of the ingredients featured on my menu.

I’ve realized that we both carry the same passion and enthusiasm, just at different ends of the beautiful process of growing and raising fruits, nuts, vegetables and proteins.

California’s historic drought, which I’m afraid is alive and well even after what felt like an average year of rain and snow, has had a profound impact on farming communities throughout the state.

This has a direct impact on Girasol, too. While the growing season in California is largely year round, farmers are at the mercy of the weather, and water is the primary component of turning out a good crop. One of my suppliers, Flora Bella Farms, was struggling so bad to survive on limited water that we hosted a fundraiser to help them raise money to pay for a new well.

The Importance of Water for Farmers & Chefs

Both chefs and farmers know the importance of water, and how to use it. People don’t understand that water is the main ingredient to your success–it’s your livelihood. The farming community is doing its part to be good stewards of the land, and so too are California restaurateurs. Using water wisely has become a way of life and is a behavior I’m bringing with me to Chicago. I will also be introducing as much fresh California produce as I can to help our Midwestern diners appreciate the Golden State’s year-round bounty as well.

It’s been nearly a month since opening night at Ēma, and every night I’m reminded that I’m almost equal parts chef and storyteller. In this way I consider myself a culinary ambassador, connecting my customers with the ingredients we use every day. Often times for chefs, the meal is half of what we’re selling. Every plate has a story. Part of the story is about the food, of course, but part of the story is about the farmer or rancher who grew or raised it. All of it is about the experience of creating, cooking and enjoying the foods we need and love.


This article was originally published on September 12, 2016 at Forbes.com.

Click here to view it in its entirety. 

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