John Lyle: The Backstory on the Chosen Spot Chef

Santa Rosa chef is behind farm-to-table dinners with a mission

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Trailing a swirl of clover and alfalfa confetti behind his midnight blue Volkswagen convertible Chef John Lyle is on a mission to make hay into ice cream. The Rumplestiltskinian concept came to him while walking through a barn and eating a nectarine. 

“I thought ‘Oh my god, these flavors of hay and stone fruit would go together perfectly. I want to share this’,” he says, pulling his car into the parking lot of a Roseland ice creamery that specializes in unconventional flavors like corn, rose petal and cheese.

Equal parts chef, social advocate, artisan food prophet and produce cheerleader, Lyle is the red-headed whirling dervish behind Hardcore Farm to Face. Born from the success of a series of dinners honoring Luther Burbank, he’s created a company who’s mission is to support local farms and non-profit organizations by inviting the public to elaborate farm-to-table pop-up dinners. The star of the show, of course, is the freshly picked, plucked and artisan-crafted foods from Sonoma County. From the farm to your face, so to speak. This fall, his company will put on several more dinners, including a Harvest Moon dinner on September 30, benefitting the AIDS Nutrient Bank at Food for Thought and Welcome Table, a dinner and farm tour benefitting the Jewish Community Center’s teen program on October 7. He’s also planning a Sunday pay-what-you can brunch at Bloomfield Farms starting in mid-September. (Find details on all the upcoming events here).

Unloading the wind-beaten bale from the back of his car (much of which is determined to adhere to the interior) he begins explaining his hay ice cream idea to ice cream maker Jorge Alcazar of Frozen Art. “First you steep the hay in warm milk, right?” he says. The two huddle for the next five minutes confabbing about the finer points of ice cream making and getting the essence of hay into the final product, which will be served with a fresh nectarine galette at his Chosen Spot pop-up dinner. 

But that’s just one of seven courses Lyle has planned. And with only three days before the event, he’s got half a dozen ranchers to visit, servers to coordinate, nearly 2,000 Facebook fans to update on his latest ripe find and rows of crops to nibble before he sleeps.

Working out a la minute ingredients for his next six courses, Lyle heads to Redwood Empire Farms in Bennett Valley. He makes a beeline to a French plum tree heavy with fruit and picks one of the small, dark plums. “Soon,” he says, moving toward the black berry bushes, and greeting young owners Ariel and Jeff Russell. At their nearby veggie patch at Kick Ranch, we walk through fields of green padrone and sweet red Jimmy Nardello peppers. Tasting the sweet, vegetal Nardellos, Lyle puts in an order, then jumps into the car and heads for the nearby Triple “T” Ranch. There he strolls through Asian pear orchards, rows of heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, lettuces, green beans and more peppers tasting everything. Putting in more orders.

Ranchers say he’s one of the few chefs who’ve have actually come to their fields, tasted, squeezed, and looked at the produce. He’s as excited–maybe more–about their products as they are. In return for his continued cheerleading, they often let him glean wild plums or blackberries, or offer up special items.

With no formal culinary training, the 41-year-old worked his way up the restaurant ladder, working in craft services in Los Angeles, a Guerneville pizzeria, Lisa Hemenway’s Fresh and the ill-fated XXV in downtown Santa Rosa before taking on the challenge of catering dinners for 100. That, of course, was after careers in biochemistry and as a coi pond expert. Suffice to say that Lyle’s eclectic history makes for great dinner conversation–should you ever find him outside a kitchen.

Raised in a house where, he says, cube steak, bottled dressing and iceberg lettuce were the only things in the refrigerator, he spent hours wandering and foraging in the fields around his house, tasting everything. Hives or a stomach ache were merely part of the learning process. He watched Julia Child and Yan Can Cook after school, mimicking the TV chefs in the school cafeteria. As a special treat, he’d sit for hours in the shower stall with a fresh pomegranate, picking each seed. “They were like my grandma’s garnets. Like jewels I could eat,” he says.

That youthful exuberance about food hasn’t waned, but grown stronger as he plans each dinner with exacting detail. “I want to bring the person eating the food closer to the farmer and the farmer closer to the person eating,” says Lyle. “It’s corny but true.”