Feature: Model Partnership

Peter Martinelli and Michael Tusk redefine the notion of farm-to-table dining

By Tanya Henry

It’s a well-known fact that Marin has been at the forefront of numerous organic and sustainable food producing and farming trends for decades. Pioneering practices for everything from grassfed beef to farmstead cheesemaking to organic vegetable farming have provided a blueprint and model for countless producers around the country.

One name that is synonymous with early organic farming is 54-year-old Marin native Peter Martinelli, who established his Fresh Run Farm in West Marin, near the town of Bolinas, more than 20 years ago.

In the 1940s Martinelli’s grandfather purchased land along Pine Gulch Creek where Martinelli’s father raised cattle and sheep. Eventually the family’s Paradise Valley Ranch was dedicated to artichoke farming until 1983 when another organic farming pioneer, Warren Weber, began leasing the land to grow row crops. Martinelli would work for Weber at Star Route Farms for 10 years learning, in his words, “everything from how to operate a tractor to sales management.”

Twenty-two years ago Martinelli struck out on his own and established Fresh Run Farm on 25 acres of his family’s Paradise Valley Ranch, where he started planting potatoes, beans and pumpkins. Today, he grows more than 30 varieties of carefully selected heirloom fruits and vegetables and has built up a roster of select restaurants that have coveted his organic offerings for their superior taste. Martinelli cites the dark loamy soil and unique coastal Marin climate as key factors in producing his sought-after produce.

“This area is unique in its topography with its hills and south-facing valleys—and it’s on the San Andreas Fault—it has amazing soil,” he says.

One of the chefs who discovered Martinelli’s high-quality greens, potatoes and fresh beans was Sausalito resident Michael Tusk, chef/owner of San Francisco’s celebrated Quince and Cotogna restaurants. The Chez Panisse and Oliveto alum met Martinelli through mutual chef friends and began showcasing his offerings on his California/Italian-focused menus more than 10 years ago. This last year, the long-running partnership became an exclusive arrangement and took the trend of the farmer/restaurant relationship to a whole new level.

It has become a common practice for restaurants to denote where the ingredients on their menus have come from. As diners, we have grown accustomed to learning the names of the ranches, family farms and orchards where the eatery has sourced their eggs, chickens, vegetables and fruit. But this level of recognition for the farmer is a relatively new practice. Though a number of high-end restaurant chefs have relationships with farmers, the model that Martinelli and Tusk have adopted could be a game changer for both farmer and restaurateur.

Rather than making deliveries to multiple restaurants and hauling his kale, beans, pumpkins and strawberries by truck to local farmers’ markets in the wee morning hours, Martinelli now has an exclusive agreement to only provide his organic specialty produce to Michael Tusk’s two restaurants.

“This partnership allows me to be on the land and focus on the crops where I love to be,” says Martinelli, who works closely with Tusk to educate him about the types of crops that are best suited for the region.

“Peter gives me a reality check on what is doable,” says Tusk, who recognized the opportunity to build something meaningful for both parties. “I saw the freshness in the ingredients, but also this amazing historical background—it seemed like a great starting point to do something new and different.”

On a recent sunny morning, Tusk and 10 of his kitchen staff members and servers visited Martinelli’s farm to help plant more than a dozen different varieties of potatoes. The opportunity for the restaurant staff to physically plant the food they would ultimately be preparing and serving in the fall and winter brings them not just closer to the source—but directly to it. And as anyone who has ever sunk their hands into cool, dark dirt knows—the connection is powerful. Creating that proximity and connection for people who prepare food not only makes for a more informed staff, but quite literally redefines the notion of farm-to-table restaurant dining.

Though staff won’t make it to the farm weekly, they will be invited to participate in plantings, harvests and even occasional lunches throughout the year. During peak season—between June and October, “we pack the restaurant van twice a week” Martinelli says.

While this exclusive partnership allows Martinelli to spend more time on his farm, it allows Tusk more time to be out of the kitchen and on the farm. A revamped greenhouse will allow them to do starters year-round and in response to proposed upcoming menus, a full range of crops including tomatoes, peppers, cool-season vegetables, lettuces and broccoli have all been planted on what Martinelli refers to as the farm’s “bottomland 25 acres.”

“Our real goal is to take advantage of our mild seasons and grow year-round,” says Martinelli, who is also planning on perennial crops that can take as many as five years before they begin producing.

A sampling of some of the items recently showcased on the San Francisco restaurant menus include fiddlehead ferns, fava beans, rose geranium and lemongrass at Quince. The more casual sister restaurant next door featured a wild nettle sformato, fava greens and Roman broccoli.

With this new chapter unfolding, Martinelli still finds time for the important causes he championed so many years ago. He continues to advocate for the preservation of local family-scale farming in Marin, and in the fall of 2014 the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) purchased a conservation easement protecting the Martinelli family ranch forever. Though he is pleased, Martinelli hopes to see more family farms and ranches in the greenbelt surrounding the town of Bolinas preserved as well.

For now, thanks to Martinelli and Tusk’s partnership, select restaurant dining just got fresher and more informed. No longer will a simple farm or orchard name on a menu suffice; instead, a plate of pristine microgreens, heirloom carrots and edible flowers presented by a server might very well have been planted and harvested by that same server. He or she can now tell Martinelli’s Fresh Run Farm story firsthand: The crops personally planted, what will be harvested next and when they will appear on the menu in various dishes. It’s a meaningful connection, and insatiable foodies will undoubtedly eat it up.

Clearly the bar has been raised. Perhaps more restaurants around the country will adopt this model and truly close the loop from farm to table. It wouldn’t be the first time that Marin would be credited with designing a forward-thinking model that would change the world.

“Chefs are the best people to give feedback on taste, flavor and texture because they know food,” Martinelli says. “It pushes the farm in different directions.”

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