I just had one of those weekends for the record books. I’m not sure how it happened really. It just did. It started with a passing invitation and culminated in an itinerary entitled “Georgia’s Down Home Downtown Weekend.” And that it was.
It all began with these chickens.
And some very large and colorful roosters.
They all had names. That one in pale orange is named Nancy.
The one entering through the small door in the back, that looks like a cat on hind legs, that’s… Sid? I think.
And in there? That’s Sarah. She’s the smallest chicken on the farm. She’s really a game bird.
And the man tickling her and checking for eggs, that’s Jeff Mall.
He’s a chef and a farmer and restaurant owner and cookbook author who I’m going to tell you about in a minute.
But back to the chickens.
They came in all shapes and sizes and colors. Many of them were mixed breeds which made it even more interesting. I wish I could remember more of their names, but I have a bit of a handicap with names.
Names and directions.
At any point in time it’s highly possible I don’t know who I am or where I’m going. It’s my weakness, my blind spot, my Achilles heel.
These were happy chickens. And I must admit, the roosters seemed like cool cats too. In some cases… literally.
From the farmhouse, Jeff and his wife Susan have a stunning view of a vineyard. Right past the chickens, they also have a beehive where they make their own honey.
They also have this. Jeff made it himself–a greenhouse made from old glass doors and wood he salvaged from the dump.
He starts a lot of the seeds at Eastside Farm right in here.
And also in his garage under a heat lamp. He’s a seed saver, and makes a point to save heirloom seeds that he thinks are particularly special, ones he’s saved through the years, from exceptional tomatoes he’s eaten at dinner tables across the world. He’s the guy you see squeezing the tomato in his salad onto a napkin. Because he knows good taste when he… tastes it.
Jeff calls himself a sharecropper. He uses land elsewhere to grow the extra vegetables he needs for his restaurant.
In this red greenhouse down the road, he has hundreds of tomato plants growing. Black ones and orange ones and every other color you can come up with.
We stopped at this piece of land that he farms to collect some food for lunch–what was remaining of the spring vegetables plus a few extras, and as we were I saw this:
Can you see it?
I found my new home.
Up there was the land owner who was getting it ready for his grandson’s visit.
After he did this:
He shook my hand and we agreed that I would be moving in instead.
Then we picked swiss chard.
And spring onions.
And artichokes. Oh man these artichokes… I’d like to take a moment of silence for these artichokes.
And then we went back to the farmhouse.
He has a very cool truck. I’m going to drive a truck like that when I grow up.
He has a lot of retro things that he’s collected through the years…
He also has an entire outdoor kitchen with a brick oven he built himself.
And an outdoor dining table… and pig roasters. For all of your whole pig roasting needs. I have a lot of pig roasting needs. I really do.
The door to the brick oven is another item he salvaged…
Here’s even more.
Our friends at Rodney Strong Vineyards down the road left us some pretty stellar wine to sample.
One more cool thing about Jeff Mall, as if there weren’t enough already, is that this year, his goal is to grow enough corn so that he can have enough meal to last one year at his restaurant.
And one more cool thing, is that he makes his own vinegar. That’s what the two barrels are for.
And one more cool thing… is that. I don’t know what it is, but I want to put something in it and push it around.
Among the many special breeds of chickens they have, one is the Araucana, which lays green eggs. So you truly can have “green eggs and ham” at Jeff and Susan’s house.
I’m going to stop talking and let you see what they prepared for lunch… everything was from the very land they live and work.
(They can 50 gallons of tomato per year!)
(Did I mention they are cool?)
He makes sour dough bread every morning for his restaurant from sour dough starter that he makes from the very grapes that are next to his land.
Yes, he makes his own pickles too.
I watched someone who hasn’t eaten red meat in 20 years, eat this brisket. It was that good.
This dish is still haunting me. I can still taste it.
Dehydrate their own pears…
Crack open their own nuts…
Produce their own honey… (it was as rich as molasses)
But here’s the thing. We hear the term “farm to table” so much these days that its meaning has been diluted. Jeff and Susan Mall are modestly carrying the torch of their own personal philosophy and are doing it themselves. Living and breathing and working it every day, incubating chicks, baking bread, collecting eggs, turning soil… and then bringing it to the table, not just for their friends and themselves, but for the lucky ones who get to experience their restaurant “Zin” in Healdsberg, CA… in the most beautiful part of Sonoma.
Jeff is the real deal, he’s doing it all himself, which is not what many of the big name restaurants can say that call themselves farm to table, but are funded in an unsustainable way.
And it gets even better…
He just finished a cookbook that he’s been meditating on for 10 years, with his friend who is a chef in a “downtown” kinda way… you’ll get to hear about him next.
This was just a few hours in my weekend odyssey. But a few hours that I won’t soon forget.
If you find yourself lucky enough to be in Sonoma, pay Jeff a visit at Zin, you won’t regret it. And if you’re not in the neighborhood, check out his book, for a little taste of something spectacular that he’s been cooking up for many years.