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Farmed Out: Namu Gaji
Summer Sewell | Photo: Summer Sewell | August 23, 2013
Chef Dennis Lee takes us behind-the-scenes, and all the way to the East Bay farm, where much of his menu grows.
Welcome to Farmed Out, a new online series, meant to ease farm-to-table fatigue by taking you directly to the source. In today’s installment, we journey with Namu Gaji chef owner Dennis Lee to unveil the source of the vine-fresh gems in his brand new tomato salad with 4505 Meats' hotdog powder.
From hard-to-source Korean staples like myoga, shiso, and giant butterbur, to common herbs such as mugwort, sorrel and basil, chef Dennis Lee aims to use ingredients from his restaurant's dedicated East Bay farm plot in the majority of the dishes on Namu Gaji's menu. This differentiates Lee from other Bay Area chefs who proudly tout their proprietary farms, yet only transport a scant berry or lettuce leaf to the table.
Thanks to Lee's weekly road trips out to the farm and deliveries to his Dolores Street restaurant from farmer-in-residence Kristyn Leach, a rainbow of fresh ingredients make it to the tables at Namu Gaji every night. Last month, Lee and I made a visit to track the pre-plate pickings of one particular dish: the peak season tomato salad you see pictured above.
As Lee’s truck crept through the gates at Sunol Ag Park (18 acres of community farmland in Alameda County) dust clouds rose from the rocky dirt road while we slowly rocked into the one-acre Namu farm plot at the back of the park.
Leach waved from the middle of the field as we approached. She greeted Lee with a hug and a crop update: The second rotation of dragon tongue beans are more tender, melons are still looking good, and the orange cherry tomatoes are fruiting heavily. Lee bent down to touch the melons as if he’d missed them since his visit last week.
A deep love for Korean produce originally brought Lee and Leach together. A longtime farmer and former cook at Oakland’s Camino restaurant, Leach was managing a lettuce farm and happened to have an overgrowth of Korean perilla (a.k.a. shiso) on her hands. Lee was facing a shiso shortage. Camino chef/owner Russel Moore connected the dots. Two years later, Leach spends more time on the Namu farm plot (12 hours a day, six days a week) than at home in Oakland. Clad in a straw hat and vintage belt buckle, Leach never wears gloves and looks too young to have the perma-dirt nails and toughened farmer hands she does.
“I’m growing tomatoes no one else is growing,” Leach said. “This is why Namu Gaji has its own farm.” Her goal: to cover just about any tomato flavor profile chef Lee could want. The Japanese black tomato (which is dusty orange in color) has a gritty skin and acidic tang. The Brown Berry cherry tomato’s skin is translucent, showing its veins, full of sweet, ketchup-y pulp.
Lee surveyed the rows of different breeds before stooping down to the hybrid tomatoes with streaked eggplant-purple skin. Leach snapped one from the vine, sliced it open with her knife, and handed it to Lee. Tilting her head, she awaits his evaluation. “They taste kinda sour and like duck fat,” said Lee. “He has an interesting frame of reference,” Leach laughed.
A row over, Lee picked a garden peach heirloom that looked less like a tomato and more like a rosy apricot. Lee said its jelly-textured center reminds him of a soft-boiled egg.
After boxing the day's tomato export for Lee (on average 35 to 60 pounds are delivered to Namu twice a week), Leach went back to picking chamomile seeds. Meanwhile, Lee prepared sandwiches for the three of us with some ingredients brought from the restaurant (avocado, olive oil, sea salt) along with shiso leaves and heirlooms from the farm. After devouring our lunch, Lee and I headed back to the city with a truck bed full of tomatoes.
Back in Namu Gaji's kitchen, Lee looked through the boxes, picking out the most ripe tomatoes, and began his low-prep treatment of them for the salad. He washed them, put ten in a bowl, and cut them into quarters, all while joking with sous chef Daniel Lim, who stands to his right cleaning mushrooms. Lim laughed loudly, as Lee, poker-faced, delicately gave each tomato piece a roll in a vinaigrette bath, unscrewed jar lids, and began to conduct a procession of unexpected toppings.
The first–dehydrated, pulverized powder made from local butchery, 4505 Meats' hotdogs–has a chorizo-like kick to it. Lee said it fits right in with the subtle spice throughout his menu. Then he added aged cheddar, housemade potato chips, sliced Mexican sour gherkins, and a few farm tomatoes.
“My idea actually with the 4505 powder was that the tomatoes were like the ketchup on a hotdog,” said Lee. Although this salad doesn’t taste like something that belongs in a bun, the tomatoes do have a meaty quality to them. "It's a nice departure from the usual Early Girls and Green Zebras," added Lee.
The fruits' vivid marbling makes them easy to eat with your eyes, but you have to ingest this salad to understand just how many different flavors—from grassy and green to sweet and candy-like—this one dish offer.
The Namu tomato salad ($16) is available Tuesdays to Saturdays for dinner through early September.