The Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market has no shortage of personalities: the lavender man urging you to “treat yourself, girlfriend;” Tomas, the smiling purveyor of Lily’s Eggs and lavish compliments; at the entrance, the shy, bearded busker playing jazz melodies for all.
Visit weekly and you start to notice the regular customers as well. Many are chefs for whom no supplier can replace the experience of market day, and they usually cluster around the most enthusiastic denizen of all, chef Alain Giraud. On a recent sunny morning, the congenial Frenchman was sourcing ingredients for a private dinner.
“I was looking for the garnish for my veal and I found zucchini flowers. It’s almost the peak of the season and I think they’ll be fantastic,” he said excitedly.
Other items he’d come looking for – leeks for a scallop dish and Cara Cara oranges for a chocolate dessert – were nowhere to be found, but Giraud didn’t sound disappointed.
“I’ve been doing this market for 30 years and it’s a mix of seeing beautiful people and enjoying the season. It’s good to have the limitation. You have to substitute what’s the best. Two weeks ago it was tomatoes everywhere but now you feel the switch of the seasons with the squashes.”
Giraud’s daughter is a vegetarian, and when she visits, squash is one of his go-to ingredients. “We sauté. We do a vegan soup with coconut milk and Indian spice.”
It’s safe to say that 20 years ago, a classical French chef touting a vegan squash soup was rarer than Cara Caras, but Giraud, never a snob, has always kept up with the times. A veteran of haute cuisine (Bastide), he had no problem opening a brasserie that served French fries (Anisette). Before it was mowed down by Rick Caruso’s Palisades Village mall, his eponymous restaurant (Maison Giraud) was an all-day joint that served simple pleasures from croissants to charcuterie. Now he cooks privately and seems perfectly happy doing it.
At Weiser Family Farms, the sight of fat pink radishes sparked an idea. “I’m making a smoked salmon gravlax tonight. Maybe I’ll buy one as a garnish, season it with vinegar or yuzu and salt. It’s visually exciting.”
The Harry’s Berries strawberries had already sold out, which came as no surprise. In October, the harvest starts shrinking and the fruit is tarter. Chefs are notoriously cost conscious, but Giraud says Harry’s are worth the steep price, more than double what he pays for ordinary varieties. “They have a lot of integrity the way they grow them. Next week I have a client that is dreaming about them.”
In the kitchen, Giraud moves fast, but Wednesday mornings are a leisurely affair. Sometimes he stops for coffee with other chefs. He knows the farmers by name and greets them warmly.
“I’m going to see my friend, Peter (Peter Schaner of Schaner Farms), for the citrus. He’s so nice. I buy all my orange juice from him. Et voilà Camille!” he said, spotting his daughter strolling with a friend.
In addition to visiting Peter, there was the matter of a basil corn velouté to source, but Giraud stopped to chat with the girls. Camille was in town on a rare break from medical school, and the chef’s modus vivendi is the same as his market strategy: always savor the moment.
Santa Monica has four weekly farmers markets including the Wednesday Downtown market on Arizona Avenue between 4th and Ocean from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the Saturday Downtown market on Arizona Avenue between 4th and 2nd Streets from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., the Saturday Virginia Ave. Park market at 2200 Virginia Avenue from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and the Sunday Main Street market at 2640 Main Street from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.