By Wendy Lemlin
Photos by Bradley Schweit bradleyschweit.com
Some have called Berry Good Night, now in its sixth year, the most sought-after foodie invitation in San Diego, with an A-list roster of top chefs, farmers, ranchers, artisans, food activists, winemakers and mixologists from both sides of the border contributing to the invitation-only feast. Also in attendance at this year’s event on June 13 will be guests from a wide variety of food-related disciplines, including science and medicine, agriculture, government and public policy, hospitality, education and media. The evening’s format is designed to promote discussion, connection and collaboration, creating long-lasting relationships and partnerships.
Hosted by Bill and Michelle Lerach on the grounds of their La Jolla Farms home on the cliffs above Blacks Beach, the dinner was originally conceived by Michelle after a stint living and working on a Sonoma County goat farm, where she observed the community’s overriding support for sustainable food production and consumption. Inspired, Michelle wondered why San Diego, with its abundant agricultural resources, didn’t have that same community integration, and resolved to do her best to make it happen.
“We have access to more family farms here than any other place in the state,” Michelle notes, “yet there wasn’t cohesiveness between producers, and there wasn’t large-scale interchange between the local farms or ranches and the chefs, artisans and others in the culinary field. This high quality local food should be available on every restaurant menu, in schools and business cafeterias, in home kitchens, and for the most part until recently it hasn’t been”.
Today, Berry Good Night, has sown its seeds, sprouted interest from all quarters, and grown a crop of related opportunities and programs. Michelle Lerach’s vision has expanded well beyond an annual dinner into the formation of the Berry Good Food Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to support the long-term goals, both financial and organizational, upon which the dinner was founded. Both Berry Good Night (BGN) and the Berry Good Food Foundation (BGFF) are dedicated to building healthy communities through a network of local, sustainable food systems that integrate eaters, farmers and food makers – on both sides of the border.
“This year, we’re taking it to the wider community and provoking deeper change on a grander scale through new initiatives and with the help of some pretty extraordinary people”, Michelle declares.
A notable board of directors, drawn from the sustainable food community at-large, will steer the BGFF, with Michelle serving as chair, and an executive slate including President Catt White (San Diego Markets), Vice President Michael Esposito (Snake Oil Cocktail Co.), Secretary Sandra Broussard (BeWise Ranch) and Treasurer Nathan Phillips (Catalina Offshore Products). Other board members include Riley Davenport (Edible San Diego), Claudia Ehrlich (The Salk Institute), writer/editor Amy Finley, Jaime Fritsch (meatsandiego.com), Eileen Gregory (La Villa del Valle), Roger Harrington (Specialty Produce), Tana Lorah (Kaiser), Scott Murray (Murray Farms Organic), Alysha Stehly (Vesper Vineyards) and writer/editor Ann Wycoff.
The list of participating chefs, growers, ranchers, artisans and purveyors who have come together to promote the Berry Good Food philosophy and goals has grown exponentially every year. With hopes toward a future where a diet of locally grown and produced foods will be mainstream in the greater San Diego and border community, a talented group of individuals have agreed to serve as an advisory committee, including Jason Mraz (avocado farmer/singer/songwriter), Deborah Szekeley (Rancho La Puerta), Chef Javier Plascencia (Bracero/Mision 19/Finca Altozano), Greg Koch (Stone Brewing Co.), Mary Walshok (UCSD), Bill Toone (EcoLife), Chef Andrew Spurgin, Jack Abbott (TedxSD, CounterCrop), Troy Johnson (San Diego Magazine), Tru Miller (Adobe Guadalupe), Hans Backhoff (Monte Xanic), Yolanda Walther-Meade, Lucila de Alejandro (Suzie’s Farm), Frans Van der Lee (Chef’s Roll), restaurateur Trish Watlington (The Red Door, The Wellington), and Brook Larios (PlainClarity).
Working tirelessly, the BGFF volunteer staff, includes Culinary Director Flor Franco (Indulge Contemporary Catering), Ranch Coordinator Jack Ford (Taj Farms), Farm Coordinator Carolyn Kates and Co-Beverage Directors Jeff Josenhans (US Grant Hotel) and Fernando Gaxiola (Baja Wine + Food), who will help manage such BGFFs programs as the Berry Good Food Academy and Berry Good Food on the Farm.
Berry Good Food Academy
The Berry Good Food Academy will focus on community outreach and education through panels and forums, such as the recent “Ethical Eating” panel moderated by Michelle and hosted at USD in conjunction with USDs Changemaker Program. The Academy is also providing low-cost community classes on cheese-making, charcuterie, foraging, canning, preserving and cooking with a focus on efficient, waste-minimizing use of products, coordinated by Ford. As a corollary, the BGFF intends to make Academy programs in both growing and preparing foods available at public schools, particularly in under-served, food-desert communities. Finally, the BGF Academy will also offer specialized training for culinary professionals focused on sustainable practices. Ford fears that husbandry is becoming a dying art, and rails against the waste in our food systems, which he counteracts through education and by advocating the utilization of the whole animal and the entire plant.
Asked by Michelle to contribute a lamb for one of the earliest BGN dinners, Ford has been an integral part of the series, and a champion of its goals, ever since. A farmer for 10 years, he shares the BGFF ethos and is a major proponent of food that is local, sustainable and seasonal. At his Valley Center farm, he raises sheep, goats, poultry, and pigs, and is known for the outstanding quality of his cheeses and proteins. His animals are raised humanely and fed natural diets. For instance, his pigs’ diet mainly consists of milk, whey, eggs, and organic vegetable protein: all food that comes from his farm or those of his neighbors.
. “My philosophy,” he says, “is that food should be biodynamic and sustainable. It isn’t just about being organic, it’s beyond that, it’s about being sourced within 100 miles. Part of my job is to coordinate proteins for the participating chefs and to work with the other farmers to bring awareness and connection between the producers and preparers of the food. I see the work we do as trying to do the best for the community, not just for ourselves. It’s all about how we are coming together and forging relationships.”
BERRY GOOD FOOD ON THE FARM
New to the roster of experiences are Berry Good Food on the Farm events, opening the invite-only Berry Good Night experience to the public at large for the first time ever, and adding an educational component to the traditional farm-to-table dining experience. The inaugural Food on the Farm dinner was held at Stehly Farms Organic in March. Upcoming events are planned at the Silo in East Village and Be Wise Ranch, one of San Diego’s oldest certified organic farms. To promote accessibility, BGFF will subsidize these events through scholarships; additionally, volunteer opportunities will be available. “It’s important that our dining and educational experiences not be limited to the same crowd of foodies, but that we reach a broader audience,” Lerach said, “and we certainly don’t want cost to be the reason people can’t attend and learn.”