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Daniel Nguyen is not your average farmer, and VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative in eastern New Orleans is not your average farm. At a time when urban agriculture seems stuck between taking flight as a scalable and real solution to urban food supply and being written off as another harebrained and all-too-precious scheme of flannel-clad hipsters, an inspiring story of scrappy success couldn’t be more welcome.
VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative’s current agricultural operation, previously known as Viet Village Urban Farm, is sandwiched between an old playing field, rows of tidy brick ranch-style homes and a ditch filled with debris leftover from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 ambush on the neighborhood. In mid-March, its 3 acres accented with neat stripes of green — early signs of newly planted crops ready and waiting to take off in New Orleans’ early summer — seemed misplaced, or perhaps like peace offerings to some unruly god.
Nguyen, too, seems anomalous in the neighborhood. A tireless worker in the fields, he’s also a provocative thinker helping drive the farm’s cooperative organizing and marketing strategies as well as its agricultural inventiveness.
Young, toned, tanned and with a mane of dark hair that stretches most of the way down his back, Nguyen recently greeted a group of students and me to the farm. Clearly unaccustomed to speaking in front of crowds, he spoke quietly and waited to be prompted with questions, zigzagging and veering as he recounted the story of the farm.
“NOLA East is home to nearly 60% of the metro area’s population,” Nguyen explained, glancing down at his rubber boots. “But we’ve got only one supermarket.”
I let this sink in for a minute. After years of working with food-security measures, I couldn’t recall another area so underserved by retail food outlets.
As a result, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative operates with an eye toward production and efficiency. And they’ve gotten there remarkably quickly.
Urban farm a bright spot in struggling community
When the farm took hold, the community had been looking for innovative strategies to bolster economic resilience. At the time, things were looking bleak, even for a community that had been living on the fringes for years. Katrina struck in 2005, and when British Petroleum’s rig started leaking into the Gulf in 2010, the community’s strongest resource — both in terms of food and income — became off limits almost overnight.
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“Before the spill, 1 in 3 people in the community were involved in the fishing industry,” Nguyen explained. The pressure was on. The cooperative needed a poverty-alleviation strategy, ideally one that would supply calories as well, and they needed it fast.
“We began in 2011 with funding from [the charity] Oxfam,” Nguyen continued. “And in 2011, we officially formed a co-op.” Meaning each of the farmer-members working the land — who range in age from their mid-20s to their late 70s, and half of whom are women — has partial ownership in the business. Nguyen, whose parents are Vietnamese immigrants who settled in San Diego, arrived in New Orleans after Katrina with verve, a green thumb honed in childhood and a head full of ideals inspired by union-organizing.
He worked as a bus boy in some of the city’s finest restaurants for a stretch, interested in the world of food, but itching to do something with a long-term impact. He began working to organize Vietnamese fishermen, and as he grew close to members of the community, he saw that many gardened at home. Some were even selling off surplus to neighbors. His first thought was to create a cooperative of backyard gardeners, but he quickly realized production would be too disparate to make marketing efficient. So the community began the search for land.
Today, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is growing on the kind of acreage rarely seen in urban America. For what’s known as a “dollar lease,” the group has secured long-term use of the land for a minuscule fee, just enough so the land isn’t officially “gifted” to them in the eyes of the law. The plot we visited is 3 acres, plus another 1 to 2 acres in brambly wetlands, where the group has plans to raise ducks, expand its composting operations and experiment with aquaponics. Another 7 acres are in the works.
The farm doesn’t come without challenges. Space is a limiting factor, and even with sophisticated techniques like closed-system aquaponics, companion planting and heavy mulching, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is, like any outdoor food operation, subject to weather, ever wary of another dramatic climatic (or man-made) event. Even more complex are the neighborhood politics: Many are wary of cooperatives, Nguyen explained, because of the economic devastation communism wrought in Vietnam.
Still, the farm has garnered a lot of attention. Today, there’s a wait list that includes African-Americans, Latinos and young adults. A youth training program is in the pipes, as are expansions into farmers markets, local gas stations and quick marts, a strategic way to intercept the stream of junk food locals consume based almost entirely on convenience.
For now, the farm regularly sells out of traditionally Vietnamese crops and more common vegetables. Nguyen’s connections in the restaurant industry have proved invaluable. Relationships between chefs and farmers can be tough to navigate, but cooperative members show up at approximately 15 restaurants several times a week with a van full of produce, making it easy for chefs to pick and choose what they want. Close to 70% of the farm’s produce goes to restaurants; a small percentage is sold at the local Vietnamese Saturday morning market, while the other 20% goes to member-owners.
When pressed about measures of success, Nguyen said a survey showed some members have used the farm to increase their income more than 100% since before the BP spill. Nguyen said the goal is to hold steady or increase that statistic for all member-owners.
But Nguyen, like most farmers, is still scraping by on what he makes from the farm. Still, he shows up every day, doggedly committed. “I have no social life,” he laughed. “But most days I get to drink a beer with these guys,” he said, gesturing to a slender older man bent over a newly tilled row, leveling out the soil with a piece of worn plank.
Top photo: VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative founder Daniel Nguyen in fields at the farm. Credit: Sara Franklin
“I grew up thinking that real families were at the kitchen table,” Alison Schneider explained to me. We were sipping tea and nibbling at the last of our lunches at a wood-plank table in Haven’s Kitchen, a year-old recreational cooking school, food boutique and event space in New York’s Greenwich Village. I glanced up. A group of cooks moved easily about the kitchen. They chatted and poked fun at one another, stopping to laugh. A handful of young women — employees every one — tapped away intently at laptops at the other end of the table. Staff hurried up and down a curved staircase, carrying bouquets of flowers and calling out to one another. It felt like we were, indeed, sitting at the nucleus of a cozy, bustling home. And that’s just the way Schneider wants it.
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Schneider grew up in New York, the only child of a mother who had adopted an anti-housework feminist ideology. But, enamored with television images of happy-go-lucky families who congregated for family meals, Schneider caught the cooking bug anyway. She taught herself by reading cookbooks (“I devour them like novels,” she told me), and by high school, she was cooking for anyone who would sit to her table.
Fast forward. Schneider, in her mid-20s, found herself working in urban development, and before long had racked up a couple of years of professional experience and become a mother of five, one who cooked dinner for her family every night.
After taking a handful of classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute, Schneider began to teach informally out of her home. “I wasn’t comfortable asking people for money. I didn’t feel qualified,” she explained. Her friends goaded her on, though, and Schneider began to contemplate pursuing a graduate degree. “I was interested in ingredients and techniques, and why people eat what they eat,” she said.
Culinary school didn’t seem right — a career as a chef didn’t seem possible with a passel of kids at home — and neither did the more policy-oriented fields of nutrition nor public health appeal to her. So in 2009, Schneider enrolled in the food studies program at New York University, taking one course at a time to accommodate her role as a parent. “I went back to school when my youngest was in nursery school, and back to work when he was in kindergarten,” she recalled, counting backward on her fingers.
The idea for Haven’s Kitchen is born
Work meant leading tours for GrowNYC, where Schneider came to intimately know the farmers and the market. She was struck by the disconnect most adults seemed to feel with the food available at the Union Square Greenmarket and began doling out her contact information to participants who wanted to learn more. She was soon overwhelmed by inquiries. “I became really interested in this gap between something that’s catching on — Michael Pollan and his call to buy local and organic— and something that’s not. Beans, grains,” Schneider explained. The need to bridge thinking about good food and cooking good food was one she didn’t see being met anywhere else.
That’s when the seed for Haven’s Kitchen was sown. “I began dreaming of a space near the market where I could have a recreational school, for people who were not going to be chefs or nutritionists, but who needed basic knife skills and the like in order to make them want to cook when they get home from work.”
In fall 2010, she began looking for a place to set up shop. At first, she only looked at kitchens, envisioning something with a “beautiful table for classes, parties and maybe a small retail space.” But when Schneider stumbled across an abandoned carriage house on West 17th Street, just a few blocks from Union Square, her vision of something that could “feel like a home” expanded to fill the space.
The building needed restructuring in addition to kitchen infrastructure. When I asked what gave her the courage to open in such a large space, in such a notoriously expensive area to boot, she chuckled. “I had to be naïve and guileless to take it on.”
Today, the space is a beautiful retreat from the city’s noise. Livable elegance was Schneider’s approach. Full of light, bright tile, framed artwork, and rustic accents, the three-story space feels more like a page out of Dwell than a sterile teaching kitchen, replete with “living rooms,” bars, cafe tables and two kitchens.
For Schneider, comfort is paramount. “There are so many people telling you what not to eat and do. Too many rules! It’s a big problem in the food movement. For me, sustainability is not a stamp, it’s about longevity. It’s about learning to shop with thought, keep your pantry stocked and use what you have.”
Today, Haven’s Kitchen is walking its walk through a number ventures. There are cooking classes taught by Schneider herself and the immensely well-credentialed kitchen staff; supper club events that feature an impressive array of guest chefs (think Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Mark Bittman, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the Franny’s crew); a private event space that has been host to weddings, dinner parties and corporate events; and a bustling cafe and retail store.
Since Haven’s Kitchen opened its doors in January 2012, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And though continued success isn’t guaranteed, especially in a city whose celebrity chef worship and restaurant dining culture seems contrary to encouraging home cooking, Schneider has reason to have faith. “Class attendees write daily saying they’re cooking at home, and my kids can sit at the counter and do homework after school and help in the kitchen, too,” Schneider said, beaming. “Plus, Joan Gussow has been here twice. How lucky am I to be a human being who got to meet her idol? I realized that everything I was scared of was not having that kitchen table, and I made that happen. It’s pure joy.”
Top photo: The Haven’s Kitchen staff prepares for a dinner party in the main kitchen. Credit: Sara Franklin
I’m here in Austin, Texas. The beer’s good, the weather is better and the barbecue trumps both. High on quirk and low on fuss, it’s as fun a place as any in the U.S. to sample cooks’ wares, be they experimental (think cornflake fried shrimp and avocado served out of a retrofitted Airstream) or entrenched (one word: brisket). So it makes sense that Molly O’Neill chose Austin as the site for her latest LongHouse Food Revival, the traveling food writers’ salon-cum-feast series she hosts together with local members of her “tribe,” Cook N Scribble.
Last time we were at a LongHouse event, my friend and colleague Neftali Duran (baker/proprietor of El Jardin Bakery in South Deerfield, Mass.) and I were frenzied parts of the planning and cooking team. This time, we got to sit back and absorb the evening. Good thing, as the topic — what is “authenticity,” specifically in the context of the Mexican diaspora and its food ways — is one we have long been debating.
Over lunch at La Barbecue “Cuisine Texicana” the next day, Nef and I caught up to recap.
Food authenticity widely debated among professionals
Sara: Last night, there seemed to be a distinction that emerged between “authenticity” and “our-thenticity.”
Gustavo talked a lot about this, the idea that the “authentic” in food is sort of a false one, full of imagined nostalgia. He says all foods are shaped by place and time, and contact between different cultures, especially in this global age. But you’ve been an ardent supporter of “local ownership” in food culture since I’ve known you. What are your thoughts on that these days?
Nef: I agree with Gustavo. But I also truly believe that if a Oaxacan cook wants to call his or her food “authentic,” it’s their right to do that. But I don’t think gringo chefs should be able to pull the “authenticity” card when cooking ethnic food. Furthermore, I believe in a term called “greater Mexico” that comes from Américo Paredes, a University of Texas anthropologist, that basically states that as Mexicans, we bring our culture and therefore our food anywhere we go. For example, I cook in New England, and my cooking has been adapted to the local ingredients.
Sara: So is what you cook still Mexican food?
Nef: It absolutely is. I don’t believe it’s losing anything, I believe it’s gaining. By using ingredients where we live, the cuisine evolves. We’re creating. But it’s still Oaxacan-inspired food.
Sara: What’s distinctly Oaxacan about your food?
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Nef: For example, in Massachusetts, I can assemble a mole amarillo because I can get most of the chiles dried from NYC, and instead of fresh yerba santa, I use dried. So it’s not the same — the flavors may differ — but it’s still a dish whose roots are in Oaxaca.
Sara: So here in Texas, you have a constant overlap of two worlds — what you would call “gringos” and then Mexican culture. How would you characterize the Mexican food scene here?
Nef: Well, I’ve had different kinds of experiences here. The other night I ate at El Naranjo, where Chef De la Vega adheres very closely to Oaxacan technique and would rather leave something off her menu than try to re-create it with non-traditional ingredients. And I really admire that. But then, today, at La Barbecue, we had distinctly Texas barbecue, which is Americana, really, but the chef is giving tribute to the Mexican influence on this city’s food culture. For example, he calls his sausage chorizo and his signature sandwich El Sancho. By the same token, he’s not calling his food Mexican, he’s called it “Texicana.”
Sara: So what’s the difference, then, between cultural appropriation and being inspired by another culture to create something innovative and new in food? Isn’t it a fine line?
Nef: I think that as cooks, we all borrow from different cultures all the time. Especially in the U.S. We’re inspired by many different peoples. What crosses the line in my book is when people think of themselves as an authority on an ethnic cuisine which is not their own.
Sara: Define for me. What makes a cuisine one’s own?
Nef: This is something where I’ve grown a lot in my thinking. You make a cuisine your own by cooking it and practicing. For example, if a Mexican cook is in the kitchen at a French place and he’s doing it well …
Sara: … So a Mexican chef can claim French food, but a chef with German roots can’t call him or herself an authority on, say, Brazilian food?
Nef: He or she can cook it. But to claim authority … let me give you some examples.
Sara: Well, first let me ask you this. Are you in agreement with Gustavo Arellano about Rick Bayless being a “prima donna” and a “liar,” as he said last night?
Nef: I wouldn’t say that, but I would say he’s been disrespectful. For example, for him to come to New York City and say that there is no good Mexican food except for Alex Stupak’s is obnoxious. I assure you that many a Mexican vendor selling tamales out of a cooler in Queens makes a better tamale than Stupak does.
Sara: So did anything about the conversation last night change your mind or surprise you?
Nef: I think that having had Iliana’s food and then hearing her say on stage that she would not compromise reassures me that we’re going in the right direction, in the sense that there are still cooks that care about their food and the integrity of what they’re serving. I’m encouraged to see that there’s a generation of first-generation cooks who are sticking to their guns and traditions. It gives me a lot of hope. It pleases me that the American palate is changing, and people are willing to be adventurous in tasting things that aren’t necessarily translated or watered down, but are still largely indigenous and culturally intact.
Top photo: Artist and pit master Kiko Guerra tends the slow-cooking cabritos. Credit: Sara Franklin
Culinarily inclined as I am, when I began planning a New Year’s holiday to Charleston, S.C., I started drawing up my “to-eat” list months in advance. There were the old-time comfort-food fixtures, of course, like Martha Lou’s and Bertha’s Kitchens. And I couldn’t resist making reservations at Husk, given how the name Sean Brock has become practically synonymous with unabashed Lowcountry pride. But in doing my homework, I also sensed a buzz brewing in the Holy City, a desire among the food set to move beyond regional classics and bring the historic city into the culinary here and now. I thought I’d have to sign up for some underground supper club. How wrong I was. Turns out all one needs to do to explore the innovative edge of the Charleston dining scene is walk north from downtown, away from the water and the romantic side alleys and stately homes, to the Upper King district.
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In Charleston, charm has long been the name of the game. The city advertises itself as so steeped in tradition it verges on kitsch. Deep history, old money and a proud sense of place are inescapable in the Lowcountry’s best known, and much beloved, city. But recently, a group of inventive chefs, restaurateurs and cocktail pros have been busy reimagining what constitutes Charleston “charm.” These movers and shakers have been snapping up vacant spaces on Upper King — the stretch of one of Charleston’s main arteries farther away from the waterfront — and transforming the neighborhood into the heartbeat of Charleston’s youthful revival.
We’ve seen this game before — hip risk-takers transform struggling neighborhoods, storefront by storefront, into the next “it” district. (Brooklyn? Oakland? Chicago, anyone?) In Charleston, gritty-cool “dives” like The Recovery Room Tavern now rub shoulders with class acts such as The Belmont; and Charleston’s formal sit-down dinner tradition has been turned on its head by wildly popular eateries such as Butcher & Bee sandwich shop (which also features regular — and regularly sold-out — pop-up dinners) and Two Boroughs Larder.
New Charleston restaurants open to big crowds
I happened to arrive at a fortuitous time. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2012 offered the opening of three new dining venues on Upper King, each with a unique menu and concept, and all three already in high demand.
First stop: The Ordinary. Just before Christmas, chef/owner Mike Lata (of FIG fame) and partner Adam Nemirow opened the doors to their eagerly awaited seafood establishment. I stopped by my first afternoon in town and found myself swooning over The Ordinary’s dramatic and elegant setting. Housed in a historic bank building designed in 1927 by celebrated local architect Albert Simons, it’s difficult not to be taken with The Ordinary’s 22-foot ceilings, large windows and class-act renovation. (Read: tiled walls, towering flower arrangements and a long, marble bar.) Over apéritifs and an unusual array of local oysters, manager Brooks Reitz stopped by to talk. “Surprisingly, because we’re a waterfront town, there’s no definitive great seafood place in Charleston,” he told me. “The Ordinary is an answer to that.” Diverging from FIG’s reputation as a quiet spot for “casual” fine dining, The Ordinary is “louder, funkier and more ‘detailed’ casual,” Reitz explained. “Our menu layout is very different. Here, you order a bunch, and it comes out as it’s ready, which is shocking for some Charleston folks who are used to regimen.” While the focus is on offerings from nearby waters, Lata’s New England heritage peeks through on the menu — a lobster roll is featured alongside Southern classics like “peel-and-eat” shrimp and gumbo.
Xiao Bao Biscuit
Just a few blocks away, on a sleepy residential block, a young couple has opened a very different kind of a local gem. Hidden behind the unassuming plate-glass windows of an old gas station shop is Xiao Bao Biscuit, the quirky little restaurant that (so far, it seems) could. Like so many restaurateurs these days, native South Carolinian Joshua Walker and his wife and partner, Duolan Li, who’s Mongolian by ethnicity, tested the waters with pop-up dinners before venturing into the world of full-fledged restaurant ownership. The couple met in New York, where they both worked in the business. They married and began to think about where to settle down. But not before dropping all their things with Walker’s family in Charleston and hitting the road for a seven-month honeymoon tromping around Asia. After deciding to make Charleston home, the couple saw their recent Asian experiences as a boon in a city bereft of the ilk of Asian food the couple had grown accustomed to in New York.
Open just a month now, Xiao Bao seems to be settling nicely into its new digs. When I visited, a warm and convivial neighborhood vibe filled the sunny space. I quickly befriended my server, who was happy to keep refilling my glass with the addictively spicy ginger-and-lemongrass house iced tea. After downing an Okonomiyaki (“what you like” cabbage pancake with kale, scallion, pork belly and a fried egg) and a refreshingly clean bowl of cold rice noodles, I spent some time chatting with Duolan, or “Dee,” who shows up at the restaurant to “play hostess” after her day job at a design and marketing firm. While her husband kept his head down in the kitchen, preparing for evening service, Dee told me the couple was pleased with their success so far. Neighbors, she explained, often stop in for a bite and a cocktail in the evening, and the popularity of the couple’s pop-up series has translated into a bustling dinner scene.
And then there’s The Rarebit, a 1960s inspired diner-cum-Hollywood cocktail bar. Sorry to say, I didn’t make it in — this is what happens when one waits too long over a busy holiday weekend. (I kept hoping the packed house would die down. Alas, the joint closed down for New Year’s Day, and I took off for home the next morning.) But a good peek in the window and a scan of The Rarebit’s website gave me a bit of insight into what I was missing. John Adamson, a restaurant vet whose past endeavors include Boylan Heights in Charlottesville, Va., has built out a sassy, inviting space accented by its long elegant bar, leather-backed stools, plaid-printed booths and bold artwork. Hungry visitors can get breakfast all day as well as simple plates Adamson calls “cheffed-up diner fare“: grilled cheese, chicken noodle soup, chicken and waffles and a daily blue-plate special. But the real draw seems to be the cocktails. Brian Sweatman, who was a fixture at Granville’s before it closed, makes all his own bitters and sodas at The Rarebit. And while the components of the cocktails may be obsessively fresh, the menu aspires to perfect the classics rather than erring toward mixologist hipster-fication.
So is the Old Charleston out? Not a chance. The city’s got too much history — and too many people interested in buying into that nostalgic image, be it real or imagined — to let its past fall by the wayside. But with the Upper King renaissance in full swing, Charleston has become the site of an unlikely, intoxicatingly exciting mashup of old South and edgy urban revival. With reverence for tradition tucked snuggly into their consciences but a gutsy hunger for experimentation guiding their menus, Charleston is proving, again, that chefs are at the helm of the (re)invention of the American city.
Photo: A peek from the bar area into the kitchen at Xiao Bao Biscuit. Credit: Sara Franklin