Backyard Orchard News
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Earth Day Profile: Chef Ernest Miller on a Different Kind of Soul Food
Written by Lacy Boggs Renner
(image: The Farmer's Kitchen)
In the heart of the bustling Hollywood Farmers Market sits The Farmer's Kitchen: a farm-to-table cafe as well as a commercial teaching, processing and retail kitchen offering affordable, healthy foods for patrons at all income levels. We chatted with chef Ernest Miller about the concept of The Farmer's Kitchen, the importance of eating "food in context" and the selfish reasons why Americans should be getting to know their farmers.
Organic Authority: What is the mission of the Farmer's Kitchen?
Ernest Miller: The Farmer's Kitchen is a non-profit community-oriented kitchen. We are a project of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA), the non-profit that runs eight farmers markets in the Los Angeles area, including the largest, the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market, which celebrates its 21st anniversary this year.
The Farmer's Kitchen supports the mission of SEE-LA in many ways: we serve a farm fresh, from scratch lunch to 280 elementary students at a local charter school (Larchmont Charter School West Hollywood) that is part of Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard Project; we operate as a farm-to-table cafe, serving breakfast and lunch; we provide job and career training to culinary students, high school students and members of the general public who want to learn what it is like to work in a professional restaurant; we provide classes to low resource families (diet, nutrition, cooking, exercise) and classes for the general public; we also make many preserved foods and value-added products with farmers market produce.
(image: The Farmer's Kitchen)
OA: How are you actively involved in the local community?
EM: We are major supporters of the Master Food Preservers of the University of California Cooperative Extension, Los Angeles County, hosting some of their classes in the kitchen. We've also supported the Orange County Master Food Preserver program. We provide technical assistance to the Hollywood Orchard Project, helping them preserve the fruit from their neighborhood.
OA: What drives your menu creation?
EM: The fresh, seasonal produce of the Hollywood Farmers Market, as well as the many different preserved foods we also create.
OA: How do you work with local farmers?
EM: We work very closely with our local farmers, speaking to them on a weekly basis to learn what will be coming in soon, or leaving soon. We make suggestions on what they might want to grow and encourage and consult with them on making value-added products.
OA: Why is it important to you to support local sustainable farmers?
EM: If it isn't sustainable then, by definition, it cannot continue indefinitely. Our industrialized food system has been a boon in many ways, but is not ultimately sustainable. We believe that sustainability is going to have to start with local farmers and teaching people how to eat with the seasons. Local food also tastes better, when it is grown and harvested for flavor, not for shipping well. We believe in "food in context" — that when food is seasonal and expresses the history and culture of a place, it tastes best.
OA: What does sustainability mean to you?
EM: Sustainability means a practice of agriculture, cooking and eating that can go on indefinitely without destroying the health of our environment or ourselves. It is not just the farmers that need to be sustainable, but those who cook and eat the food as well.
OA: Why is it important for Americans to get to know where their food comes from, how it was raised and their farmers?
EM: Self-interest. Food tastes better when it is harvested locally and in season. It is generally less expensive, and is certainly less expensive when you take into account fair labor practices, environmental harms and all the other hidden costs of our industrialized food system.
Ultimately, we need to pay more attention to how and what we eat. We need to eat in context, knowing the place, history and culture of what we eat. When we eat, we feed not only our body, but mind and soul as well. If you don't know where your food comes from, how it was raised and who raised it, you may be feeding your body, but you are starving your mind and soul.
OA: How can America help revive the regional local farmer infrastructure that disappeared over 50 years ago?
EM: Support your local farmers, visit their farms, encourage and support programs that introduce children to what farming is all about (farm-to-school, 4-H).
OA: What cooking tips do you have to inspire home chef to cook more seasonally?
EM: Don't use recipes. Learn techniques, shop the farmers markets for fresh, delicious produce, and cook it simply.
OA: What is your must have, go-to home cooking tool?
EM: A 10-inch Chef's knife.
OA: What are your favorite must-have home pantry staples?
OA: What shopping tips do you have for the home chef?
EM: Shop at a farmers market and see, feel, smell and taste the produce. Talk to the farmers, and don't be afraid to try something you've never had before.
Organic Authority would like to thank Ernest Miller and all of the sustainable, organic farmers and chefs whose work is providing healthy food for us all to eat. We honor you as being conscious stewards of our planet. And, we are thrilled to have you participating in our Earth Day event!
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During his 15 years at Kearney, Jensen identified recent agricultural science graduates and hired them as staff research associates to work with him in the field and in his lab. He trained them on the most recent plant science research techniques, imparting skills for future careers as farm advisors.
UC Cooperative Extension advisors that worked with Jensen include George Leavitt, retired UCCE advisor in Madera County, viticulture; Harry Andris, retired UCCE advisor in Fresno County, tree crops; Bob Beede, UCCE advisor in Kings County, tree crops; Larry Bettiga, UCCE advisor in Monterey County, viticulture; Rhonda Smith, UCCE advisor in Sonoma County, viticulture; and Mary Bianchi, UCCE advisor in San Luis Obispo County, horticulture.
“Jensen was soft-spoken, had a good sense of humor and honest to a fault,” said Fred Swanson, the former director of Kearney. “He was an outstanding researcher, an accomplished photographer and has made a greater impact than anyone I’ve known by investing himself in other people.”
Jenson was raised on a farm in Weedpatch, Kern County. He earned a bachelor’s degree in soil science at UC Berkeley in 1942, then served for three years in the U.S. Army. He later earned a master’s degree in horticulture from UC Davis.
In 1947, Jensen was hired as an assistant farm advisor by UC Cooperative Extension in Tulare County at a salary of $3,600 per year. In 1972 he was promoted to viticulture specialist at Kearney.
As both a farm advisor and specialist, he worked to develop and obtain registration for commercial products to benefit the state’s grape growers, such as plant growth regulators and many other critical agricultural chemicals. Jensen’s detailed research on gibberellic acid applications helped identify optimal rates and timing that had eluded previous UC researchers. His work on bloom time applications have become an industry standard. Jensen also did the initial work on ethephon, a plant growth regulator used to enhance and improve fruit color. Jensen developed the use of ethephon to enhance raisin maturity, which almost eliminated the loss of raisin crops from early rains.
Jensen researched cultivar selection, vine spacing, trellising and integrated pest management. An early promoter of IPM practices, his contributions were instrumental in production of the UC Grape Pest Management Manual. He was the author or co-author of more than 250 publications and his scientific work is referenced in textbooks, journals and other viticulture publications. Jensen was a longtime editor of the scientific journal American Enology and Viticulture and was a world authority on table grape production.
Jensen retired from UC Cooperative Extension in 1987, but continued to conduct research and extension work for decades as an emeritus viticulture specialist and private viticulture consultant. In honor of his life-long body of work, Jensen received the Merit Award from the American Society for Enology and Viticulture in 2001. He was recognized for his contributions to California’s table grape industry at the 6th International Table Grape Symposium in 2010.
Jensen is survived by his wife of 27 years, Thelma Lile Essex, two daughters, three step-children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. April 28 at Quail Park Retirement Village, 5420 W. Cypress Ave., Visalia, Calif.