Peter Jacobsen doesn’t get mad at the herds of snails that have made Swiss cheese out of his organic kale. He gets even.
At the edge of his 1.5 acre Yountville orchard and farm, the dentist turned dirt-under-the-nails grower pulls open the lid of a wooden box to reveal hundreds of the slimy pests. Instead of baiting or poisoning them, Jacobsen invites them to his makeshift snail hotel, treating them to a diet of greens and cornmeal. Fat and happy, these garden troublemakers are eagerly snapped up for swanky dinner menus. Revenge is best served in a bath of butter and herbs.
Walking around the small backyard plot dense with rows of tomatoes, squash, flowers and fruit trees, Jacobsen casually acknowledges that he makes his living working with some of the best chefs in the country. The produce on his property along with that of next door neighbors, , grace the tables of The French Laundry, along with spots like Angele, Auberge du Soleil, La Toque and Redd.
Having close personal relationships with farmers has been a hallmark of top chefs like Alice Waters and Thomas Keller for years. Keller, in fact, has a network of farmers around the country producing everything from cheese and meat to veggies and fruit for the restaurant.
It’s a philosophy gaining traction throughout the restaurant biz as chefs seek out more and more specific products grown to their own exacting organic standards. Around Wine Country, a handful of local chefs have even gone one step further, managing onsite culinary gardens or even their own farms. Among them: Zazu, Restaurant Eloise, The French Garden, Julia’s Kitchen at COPIA and Zin come to mind, though there are certainly many others.
For Jacobsen, there’s plenty of trial and error involved in the process. Chefs aren’t always clear about exactly what they want, he says. Often they’ll ask for a particular size, texture or color but leave it to him to refine and experiment with the produce to get everything just right–like lavender that doesn’t taste soapy or pears that hold up to a salad without becoming mush.
Throughout the year, Jacobsen grows everything from onions, rosemary and basil to pears, figs, plums, tomatoes, berries and lettuces for the restaurants.
Just across the street, the Hill family (who are primarily involved in winemaking) are also producing small lots of organic produce and edible flowers. Walking around with her pet chicken, six-year-old Joselyn Hill points out the various types of flowers, fauna along iwth her brother, Ryan. She makes sure we see her special orchard treehouse as we tour the farms gathering as many goodies as our little baskets with hold. These are seriously pedigreed plums and figs, after all.
As Joselyn chatters happily, I stop to consider the fact that her playground is the chef’s garden for Thomas Keller. Her chicken pecks at fallen blackberries and tomatoes that almost made it to one of the best restaurants in the world.
I’ve never been so jealous of a kid, or a chicken in my life. I’ll savor my purloined plums as consolation.
Jacobsen Orchards, Yountville. Closed to the public but you can purchase his organic seeds for your own gourmet garden here. Hill Family Estate tasting room, 6512 Washington Street, Yountville, 707.944.9580