Each Thursday chefs from around the Bay Area head to the Marin Farmers’ Market looking for fresh ingredients they’ll serve that evening in their restaurants.
But these are the professionals, and as much as I love gathering at the market with friends, combing the stalls for fresh cheeses, fruits and vegetables I’ll include in my meals throughout the week, I always wondered how the real culinary creations are made—how a chef eyes just the right produce and plans a meal for that evening, right on the spot.
With the challenge of creating a three-course meal for four with a $75 budget, I am tagging along with Beau Burroughs, the talented 30-year-old chef at Dream Farm restaurant in San Anselmo. Burroughs is self-taught and quiet, perhaps preferring to let his meals be his message, but he lights up when eyeing prizes like Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes or just the right Mission figs.
“What are you thinking for the protein?” I ask him, trying to use the chef-speak I’ve picked up on various episodes of reality cooking shows. “Duck,” he says. “I’ve been in the mood for duck.” And with that, we searched, and searched. Unfortunately, a farmers’ market is just that—a bounty of that day’s freshest and seasonal ingredients from local purveyors. And alas, we’d learn from another farmer that the duck booth wouldn’t be there until Sunday’s market.
With the lack of duck looming, Burroughs is silent. His height is an advantage here, as he peers up and down the booths. Without saying a word, he walks over to the Mission Fish booth. Spotting fresh tuna, salmon and halibut, he studies the prices before making a selection. In an industry where cooking has become a celebrity endeavor, the autodidact chef has the smallest ego of any I’ve met. He’s used to sticking to a budget—the menu at Dream Farm only includes items under $20—and he doesn’t (seem) to grow tired of some of the loquacious farmers excited to tell the chef about their prized produce and the virtues of their soil. After opening a zip-locked bag with a halibut fillet inside and getting a waft of the freshness, Burroughs makes his decision. “We’ll have halibut fillets for the entrée; those figs I purchased for the duck breast will still work on the cheesecake dessert and I’ll pick up some corn and fava beans for the fish garnish.”
After picking up our final ingredients—honey from Marshall’s Farms, heirloom tomatoes from Balakian Farms, potatoes from Little Organic Farms, cheese from Spring Hill Jersey, basil from Arrowsmith Farms and avocados from Shoup Farms we headed to central Marin to test our meal in Dream Farm’s kitchen.
Burroughs and I leave the farmers’ market at the same moment, but by the time I enter the restaurant, he already has water boiling on the stove, the potatoes sliced, seasoned and in the oven and is working on cutting the tomatoes for the starter salad. The ease and speed with which he works in this intimate kitchen not only impresses me but gives me confidence to attempt these recipes in my own apartment’s meager space.
As Burroughs masterfully purees the Star Route Farms arugula and cashew pesto (even being so bold as to remove the blender’s top and add more greens mid-power-puree, which garners a look of awe from myself and our photographer) he talks about his future, which doesn’t include visions of a restaurant empire, but rather of someday owning a farm.
As Burroughs finishes stacking the various varietals of heirloom tomatoes and plating the fish, we sit down to enjoy his hard work. The meal is remarkable and I can see why Dream Farm is becoming one of the most talked-about restaurants in Marin. With help from local farmers’ seasonal offerings Burroughs has produced what I call feel-good cuisine. He has that rare knack for creating a plate that will satisfy but won’t weigh down. And although I tell him I’m not sure I’ll be able to cook my halibut as perfectly as he has managed, or succeed in not burning the honey cookie in my ricotta cheesecake dessert, Burroughs just shakes his head. “There’s no secret; it’s just good, easy food.”
Heirloom Tomato Salad
2 lbs. heirloom tomatoes, sliced
(Green Zebras, Copias, Brandywines)
2 avocados, sliced
1/2 cup basil leaves
1 shallot, minced
1 cup feta
Olive oil/sherry vinegar
Drizzle sliced tomatoes with olive oil and good sherry vinegar. Toss with basil, avocado slices, feta and shallot. Season with salt and pepper.
Seared Alaskan Halibut with Arugula Pesto, Charred Corn and Fava Beans, Roasted Potatoes
4 six-ounce halibut fillets
2 lbs. La Ratte fingerling potatoes
4 ears of yellow corn
3 lbs. fava beans
(will come to about 1/2 cup after shucking, blanching and popping)
1 lb. arugula
1/4 cup cashews
2 cloves garlic
Dash of canola oil
Set the oven to 450 degrees. Remove interior beans from favas; drop in boiling salted water for 30 seconds. Drain and drop in ice water. Slice the skin of each inner bean and pop out the inside bean. Set aside.
Char the ears of corn in a hot pan with a little oil and set aside to cool for a bit. When cool enough, cut the kernels from the cobs and toss with the juice of one lemon, some extra-virgin olive oil and the cup of shelled fava beans. Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise and toss with olive oil and salt and pepper. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown.
Heat a nonstick pan or well-seasoned iron skillet over medium heat until just smoking. Pour in a dash of canola oil and sear the halibut until golden brown and easy to flip. Flip sides and cook until desired temperature. In a blender, puree the garlic, cashews, and zest and juice of the other lemon and a half cup of extra-virgin olive oil. Then add the arugula and puree. Plate the potatoes, then the corn salad and halibut, and drizzle a little pesto over all.