When Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain say their produce at Camino Restaurant is locally grown, not many diners realize how literally they mean it.
While many of the vegetables and fruit used at the popular Oakland restaurant come from local farmers markets, some of the herbs and produce on Camino’s plates and in its cocktails are grown just half a mile away, in a garden by a couple who don’t farm for a living, but do it as a hobby. Their payment: eating regularly at the restaurant.
And, while it is unusual for Tim Drew and Christine Hwang to grow what Moore asks them to — both in the nature of the relationship and in its scope — for many East Bay residents the barter system seems to be alive and well. A side benefit? The goodwill that ensues from an exchange without money, and the friendships it forges.
In Camino’s case, it all started six years ago when Drew and Hwang, who goes by Chris, began eating at the newly opened restaurant in their Grand Avenue neighborhood. Not only did they enjoy Camino’s food, but they appreciated its locavore ethos. They had begun beekeeping, and had honey to spare.
“We didn’t realize how much honey a single hive could produce,” said Drew, an Oakland native who, like Moore, is a Chez Panisse alum — Drew once washed dishes there in the 1980s, while Moore cooked at the Alice Waters mecca for 20 years. Drew worked for a while in the food industry, but now is a regulatory analyst for the California Public Utilities Commission (“This is why we have hobbies,” he cracked, “to be more interesting people.”)
“We decided to bring some honey to them and see if they’d use it,” he said.
While Camino already had honey from bees on its own roof, Moore liked the fact that it came from only half mile away. And the flavor was exceptional. Neither party wanted to deal with money, so payment for the honey came in a deduction from their meal.
The couple lives in the house Drew grew up in, near the Piedmont border, and they do some gardening there, but most of it takes place a few houses away on land belonging to a neighbor.
“We were gardening here, surrounded by neighbors’ yards that were tremendously under-utilized,” said Drew. Spotting one that was all weeds a few houses away, Drew left a note in the owner’s mailbox, asking whether they could rent his land for a garden, and they worked out an agreement.
Both Drew and Hwang had grown up doing some gardening, but now they have become such green thumbs that they use a garden map so as not to step on each others’ toes, though Drew says that Hwang “kind of took over.”
“I was bored with the usual stuff,” said Hwang, a program evaluation administrator for First 5 Alameda County, and board president of the non-profit Walk Oakland Bike Oakland. “I would never grow zucchini, mainly because I don’t like it.”
Hwang began doing research, and found that their microclimate is similar to that of the Andes, and so they experimented with some obscure South American crops, like mashua, a tuber whose leaves and flowers are edible. “It’s interesting, it has a funk to it,” she said. “I would taste some, and they were kind of grody, but I liked growing all kinds of things you can’t find at the store.”
It was that curiosity and willingness to experiment, as well as the pair’s organic gardening practices, that had Hwang asking Moore to come up with a list of herbs he’d like them to grow. Moore and Hopelain then visited their garden to see what they already had growing.
“Russ was poking around… he’s a nibbler,” said Drew, “he was nibbling on everything.”
Hopelain recognized borage, whose leaves regularly turn up in Camino’s cocktails. They began planting other herbs specifically at Moore’s request. They also have sunchokes, as they grow easily, and “Russ can’t get enough of them,” said Drew.
“I gave them a list of six or eight different herbs I couldn’t get very easily, and, six months later, Chris brought them all in,” said Moore.
Often it’s not worth a farm’s while to grow more obscure herbs because there isn’t a regular market for them, which is why this arrangement works so well.
“They’ll try anything, and they’re not making a living from it, which is really helpful,” said Moore. As he prefers to avoid receiving herbs in large plastic clamshell packaging, he says: “They ride their bikes down the hill to make their deliveries. I love it; it’s changed how we’re working.”
During high growing season, the couple sometimes delivers as often as twice a week; in winter, things slow down considerably.
Moore said the couple’s ready supply of herbs is “changing what dishes we can do when. The range available in their microclimate most of the year is kind of mind-blowing, and it’s helping us to have access to things we wouldn’t have normally.” Herbs he especially likes that they grow for him: Persian mint, summer savory and anise hyssop.
Furthermore, he has introduced things to the menu he wouldn’t have tried otherwise, just because it’s grown in Drew and Hwang’s garden. One example is yacón, otherwise known as a Peruvian ground apple. Moore said the tuber, that he describes as somewhat like jicama crossed with a water chestnut, “is used all the time now, and, before them, I didn’t even know what it was.” Moore uses it raw in salads, and said it’s also good with chiles and lime as a bar snack.
Moore emphasized that many customers come with offers of backyard persimmons and other fruit, but that he is “super-picky,” and he won’t take anything without the proper assurances about how it is grown.
While Drew and Hwang’s relationship with Moore is uncommon in terms of its scale, smaller barter exchanges are happening all around. The couple was introduced to Dominica Rice-Cisneros, chef/owner of Cosecha, at a Camino dinner. They now sometimes grow Epazote and other Mexican herbs for the Old Oakland Mexican restaurant. (Rice-Cisneros is a fellow Chez Panisse alumna.)
The couple’s friend, Maureen Forys, a book designer who lives in the Grand Lake neighborhood, has been bartering her backyard eggs with various chefs and farmers for years. Bartenders at Boot & Shoe Service would use the whites for cocktails, she said, and take home the yolks, giving her free drinks in return. And that’s only one example. Forys said that she began trading her eggs with Baia Pasta’s Dario Barbone, and now they’ve become close friends.
“The eggs are not only currency, they’ve opened up all of these relationships,” said Forys. “It’s been pretty great: you find like-minded people who are into similar things, and so a lot of shared values go a long way toward cementing that relationship.”
Alexandra Whisnant, a chocolatier who sells her artisanal chocolates under the gâté comme des filles label, noticed a passion-fruit vine in front of this reporter’s Temescal home when she came over last year for an interview. Now that it’s passion fruit season, we bartered this year, and it turns out I’m far from the only one she barters with.
“My friend Asiya Wadud inspired me to barter when she founded Forage Oakland, which is a backyard fruit-bartering exchange network,” said Whisnant. “We were roommates in Rockridge and we both worked at Chez Panisse and she would take me on walks all around Oakland and show me all the fruit trees and teach me foraging etiquette (i.e. always knock on the door and ask).”
Referring back to Moore, she said, “It must be a Chez Panisse-ism, this bartering for ingredients and making friends along the way.”
Moore echoed that sentiment. “I’ve had other people who want to unload stuff, but they don’t eat here,” he said. “I don’t need it and it’s not as fun.”
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