The best meal I had last year took place in a back yard in Berkeley.
I wasn’t expecting it at all. Months earlier, a couple friends tipped me off to a dinner experience called The Fareground, where diners share an intimate meal with a featured food maker or farmer. The guest of honor brings their small-batch products — be it olive oil, fresh produce and meats, teas or essential oils — that are incorporated into the evening. It sounded like a fun time, but I really hadn’t anticipated that I’d be so impressed by the whole experience, and especially, that I’d be blown away by the food.
That evening, I arrived at the address sent to me via email, not quite sure what to do or where to go next, until I caught sight of twinkling stringed lights and lit candles that guided me through the side entrance to the back yard. I was greeted by affable host and Fareground founder, Lorren Butterwick.
Butterwick first dreamt up The Fareground last spring. At the time, she was an assistant winemaker at Berkeley’s biodynamic Broc Cellars, and had developed relationships with various farmers, growers and others involved in the production side of winemaking. She had studied biology, and had worked at various nonprofits focusing on conservation before coming to Broc. (She left Broc late last year, and is back in the nonprofit world.) She saw an opportunity to bring all of her interests together in a dynamic event that was fun, educational, environmentally focused and delicious. Her goal was to connect people in the Bay Area with local farmers and makers, introducing them to their products and their process in a casual, dinner-party environment. There would also be a retail component, where makers could sell their wares directly to customers on site.
The first Fareground dinner was in June. The guest maker was her friend, local natural winemaker Martha Stoumen. Butterwick tapped another friend, chef Juliet Orbach, to cook a meal to pair with several of Stoumen’s wines. Together, the three developed a game-plan for the event — discussing as a group what food would be served, what wines would go best with the meal and how Stoumen’s story and products could be shared throughout the evening. The dinner was served in the small carriage house that sits in the back of Butterwick’s back yard. After that first event, Butterwick had the groundworks to make The Fareground into a series.
A large wooden table decorated with candles, herbs, dried flowers and whole persimmons was set with mismatched tableware and surrounded by an assortment of chairs and benches — most probably borrowed from Butterwick’s house next door. The table took up most of the real estate inside the tiny carriage house but, somehow, there was also room for a stand-up piano, several surfboards, plants and flowers, kitschy decorations and 15 dinner guests.
One accent wall had a pattern of large gold leaves that looked to have been painted by hand. It all gave the room a charming personality and took away a little of the awkwardness of finding yourself in a stranger’s back yard with a bunch of people you didn’t know. The bowls of snacks on the table helped too. Several of us reached for handfuls of addictive roasted paprika-spiced almonds and sweet-tart dried O’Henry peaches that were harvested from Wild Oat Hollow, as we read over the printed menus that were placed on top of each plate.
When all the guests had arrived, we took our seats and got a brief introduction to Wild Oat Hollow from Keiser. Keiser grows organic produce, raises sheep, goats, pigs and chickens, all using sustainable farming methods, which, she said, “work with nature to manage and improve the soil.” The animals at Wild Oat Hollow roam free and graze the pasture on a rotational basis. Native plants are allowed to grow, creating wildlife habitats and vibrant symbiotic ecosystems. The intro was a good primer to her farm, but it wasn’t until we tucked into the meal that I really understood — and tasted — what makes Wild Oat Hollow so special.
The first course was hummus topped with parsley pesto and garlic confit. The dip was served with freshly grilled flatbread — made on a small Weber grill right outside the carriage house — and carrots, fennel and endive, picked that morning from Wild Oat Hollow. Vegetables from the farmers market are great, but these were some of the best damn vegetables I’ve ever had. They were extremely crisp and crunchy and packed with flavor. Had they been served alone — just as Alice Waters serves a bowl of fruit for dessert at Chez Panisse — I would have been happy. With that said, I was glad for the hummus and flatbread. We all were — as we each had several helpings. The garlic confit that topped each bowl was a creamy counterpart to the bright, herby pesto and the nutty chickpea puree.
Next up was a winter vegetable salad, a true “snapshot of Sarah’s farm,” said Butterwick as she placed plates in front of us. All the components of the salad, except the dressing — winter squash, broccolini, purple cauliflower, cabbage, celery root, Brussels sprouts and one poached egg — were from Wild Oat Hollow. The sesame chili salsa which dotted the plate sparingly allowed the freshness and flavor of the vegetables and egg to take center stage. Some of Keiser’s broody hens are seven years’ old, yet still lay five eggs a day. When I pushed my fork into the center of my poached egg, a brilliant orange puddle spilled forth, proving it was fresh from the farm.
Wild Oat Hollow chickens also played a large role in the second course — a hearty Persian chicken stew called fesenjen, which was studded with walnuts and jewel-like pomegranate seeds, and served with mountains of glistening, fragrant saffron rice and a mixed green salad. The braised chicken legs were long and meaty. Keiser explained that her chickens have really long legs because they’re allowed to run free and graze the land. The meat was dark in hue and gamey in flavor, almost like duck — perfect for the rich, flavorful stew.
Chef Orbach, who is half-Persian, explained the dish to the dinner guests. Fesenjen is a winter solstice dish in Iran. Orbach had been hidden in the kitchen in the main house until that moment. Butterwick later told me the humble chef would normally rather have her dishes speak for her. Fortunately, the language of her food needs no translation — it’s simple, but bold, seamlessly combining traditional Middle Eastern ingredients with complementary fresh and seasonal flavors to create an enticing contemporary dish. Before moving to Berkeley Orbach lived in Los Angeles where she worked at Silver Lake hotspot Sqirl. When she first teamed up with Butterwick, she was working as a chef at a private Iranian school in Berkeley. Recently, Orbach started a new gig — as the head chef at Cafe Reveille’s Lower Haight café in San Francisco.
Orbach’s new job will mean she won’t be at the next Fareground dinner on March 3 with featured maker Stinging Nettle Apothecary. However, an equally talented local chef, Jordan Litke, will take her place. Litke has spent time in the kitchens of Wise Sons Deli and Central Kitchen in San Francisco, and Mission Chinese and Ivan Ramen in New York. Over the years, he has developed a style of cooking that sees Japanese flavors through a California lens. Litke is no longer in professional kitchens — he now works for GreenLeaf, selling produce from small-scale sustainable farms directly to chefs. The next Fareground dinner will be his short return to cooking for diners who aren’t friends and family.
The final course of the night was a goat’s milk panna cotta with a luscious topping of hachiya persimmon, a fruit which has a pudding-like quality itself. Orbach served the dessert in large glass goblets, with quartered tangerines, ripped apart by hand and still in their jackets. Something about the presentation had a very ’70s cookbook look. The combination of ripe, creamy and raw was delicious — fresh, but not overly heavy, which is the best way to end a meal.
My biggest beef with eating family-style is that portions can feel small, especially when sitting at a table with big eaters. It can feel like a competition, to fight for an appropriate portion of each dish, but also leave enough for others and not seem like a greedy glutton. (Spoiler alert: I’m a greedy glutton.) That was not a problem at The Fareground. Servings were generous, and when a dish was emptied, it was refilled with more. After dessert, I was tempted to pop the button on my jeans to let my satiated gut breathe a little. Don’t worry, I kept it buttoned up.
For the last few minutes of The Fareground, we were encouraged to do a little shopping. Keiser had brought soaps, lotions, sheep skins and other products made from animals on her farm. Butterwick explained that many of the guest makers she invites to The Fareground don’t have many (or any) outlets for their products. She wanted to give farmers and makers an opportunity to introduce and sell their produce and wares to customers, who now have a better context of who they are and what they do. I left the carriage house with a bar of goat milk soap and a cedar hemp lotion, but there was no pressure to buy anything.
Since that memorable meal in December, the path of the Fareground has changed. Aside from Orbach taking a full-time chef job, Butterwick recently decided to move to the Central Coast to be closer to her family. The next two events — on March 3 with Stinging Nettle Apothecary and May 5 with Sol Seeker Farm, when Orbach will return as chef — will be the last Fareground dinners in Berkeley, at least for a while. Butterwick said she hopes to continue the Fareground — in some shape and form — in her new community, and maybe even find someone in Berkeley who’ll pick up where she left off.
Get tickets to the next Fareground dinners while you can.