A bit of a rogue
Mar./Apr. 2008 California Country magazine
By Jennifer Harrison and Barbara Arciero
In 2002 Kevin Koebel opened Rogue Chefs, a restaurant in downtown Half Moon Bay that puts local farmers at center stage.
Farm boy-turned-chef brings new ideas to the table
Kevin Koebel knows what he likes. He also knows what he doesn't like. As for the first, food, especially farm-fresh food, occupies a special place in Koebel's heart. As for the second, the widening gap between farmer and consumer drives him mad.
"When I came to California I realized more and more that there were a lot of people who have no idea where stuff comes from," Koebel said.
So he decided to do the introductions himself. In 2002 Koebel opened Rogue Chefs, a restaurant in downtown Half Moon Bay that puts local farmers at center stage. Their pictures hang on the walls and their names are touted on the menu, making it clear to diners where the greens for their salad came from and where the feta cheese topping their entrée originated.
"It's not about me," Koebel said. "It's about coming into a place that already has pre-established agriculture."
This respect for the land is nothing new. Koebel grew up on family farms in the Rocky Mountain ranges of Canada.
"The farming way of life is one that really teaches you to have a core, basic sense of right and wrong--and I'm not talking morals and values. I'm talking about if you do something wrong, it's right there. You'll have a crop that doesn't happen or you'll have animals that won't grow," he said.
Koebel's family was "mostly self-sufficient," raising grain crops, livestock and a thriving vegetable garden. They also made their own butter and cream. For Koebel, this homegrown interest and experience in food parlayed into a career in the restaurant business--and his life as a chef has taken him from Canada to Paris, Norway, Germany, Seattle and eventually California, a place he had always been connected to in a roundabout way.
"When I was younger and working in small restaurants, I saw boxes from Salinas or Watsonville and didn't know where that was or what it was all about," he said.
Today he knows the region inside out. Half Moon Bay is sandwiched between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the mighty Pacific, with farmland that practically tumbles to the ocean. This pristine earth produces everything from arugula and brussels sprouts to pumpkins and herbs. The array of farm-fresh ingredients is what prompted Koebel to create a restaurant that plucked food directly from the dirt--and he takes careful steps to maintain the farm connection from dirt to diner.
For instance, while most chefs create a menu and then look for the ingredients, Koebel takes the opposite approach.
"My mind-set is, go to the farmers and have them tell me what looks best that month, what they feel is very strong, what they feel proud about or what the weather has just allowed them to produce," he said.
It's not uncommon for Koebel to zigzag up and down Highway 1, seeking the bounty of local farms and ranches. One of his mainstay suppliers, Harley Farms, is just a few miles down the road in Pescadaro.
On a recent sunny day, there among the newborn goats is owner Dee Harley showing what the farm has to offer. Ricotta and feta cheese are available, and Koebel ponders the possibility of a ricotta-based cheesecake and an eggplant appetizer topped with feta for the menu that very night.
While this face-to-face, farmer-chef connection is a bit of a rarity, farmers like Harley say they welcome the contact and have noticed an increased interest from the public about farming in general.
"They want to make sure their children know that that goat made this milk, that made that cheese that they are buying today," she said. "They want that relationship."
And farmers want the additional opportunities to help them continue making their living from the land. In fact, they are constantly seeking them out.
Whether he's planning a six-course meal for a special event or gathering ingredients for a cooking class, chef Kevin Keobel goes directly to the source: the farmers and fishmongers that surround his Half Moon Bay restaurant. Farmers such as John Muller say that this direct, farmer-to-chef contact creates a mutually beneficial relationship.
When Half Moon Bay farmer John Muller noticed a new chef in town, he and his wife, Eda, packed up a sample box of Swiss chard, peas and herbs and knocked on Koebel's door.
"Chefs like to look at product, and they like to feel and smell and taste it. So that's kind of how we work," said Muller, whose delivery to Koebel gained him an immediate customer. "And we're right downtown near the chefs in different restaurants, so we're available every morning to pick and bring them fresh product. Also, they'll take a pass by the farm when they have a chance just to see what's growing and what's available."
Muller's family-run farm has changed dramatically from its first days in 1947. Flower growing was the primary focus for the first three decades, then they added produce to the lineup. Next, he and his wife decided to grow pumpkins so that children and their families could experience a real pumpkin farm and see how and where they grew. Today the couple also run a produce stand, are regulars at local farmers markets and have further diversified their business by becoming distributors of high-end Italian seeds.
"We've had to reinvent ourselves as a grower, a small grower, because of the impact of the big-box stores. No. 1, we don't have the volume to supply the big-box stores and No. 2, they're not just going to buy a little bit of this and a little bit of that," Muller said. "It's just another means for us to stay in agriculture by catering to the smaller niche markets."
Koebel, too, is reinventing himself by phasing out of the traditional restaurant business and focusing on other markets: special events, hands-on and Internet-based cooking classes, and--soon, he hopes--a television program.
"The restaurant seats only 50 people," Koebel explained. "Everyone else is using technology to brand what they do. If I have any chance to reach more people faster, I'm going to go for it."
There's a simple reason why Koebel wants to reach more people: so he can share his philosophy of food, which is essentially his philosophy of life.
"It is my belief that we have a tremendous ability to customize and cultivate our own lives however we wish," he said. "If we are not careful, we can go from today to tomorrow without having to make any decisions. So all I'm trying to do, through the medium of food, is have people take participation in creating their own life experiences where tomorrow they can look back and say, 'I remember I made this choice, I made that choice. These were great, this one maybe wasn't, but I learned.' The days aren't wasted."
In other words, Koebel doesn't teach people how to follow a recipe. He teaches them how to think.
Apparently this approach is paying off. Koebel's hands-on cooking classes have consistently sold out. His "webinars"--fully interactive, Internet-based classes--are set to launch by early summer. And his special events and themed dinners have the restaurant site and staff booked. Now he's just waiting to hear if the TV show he's pitched to a couple of networks will pan out.
"Ironically, I have more business now than when we were a full-time restaurant," Koebel said.
Muller says he is pleased for his fellow businessman and that he salutes Koebel's initiative.
"Kevin's challenging the food world as it is. There are so many restaurants and it's so competitive, so I think his diversification of different ideas is probably the uniqueness about Kevin," Muller said. "He's got a restaurant still but he's doing whatever else he can do. Like all of us individuals out there, we're working very hard for survival."
Keobel is a frequent visitor at Ray Chiesa's produce stand in Half Moon Bay, where Chiesa and this wife, Eugenia, operate a small vegetable farm.
Farmer and chef agree that making a living off the land can be difficult, especially in California where foreign competition, tough regulations, a tight labor supply and other challenges add to the pressures of doing business. Still, even farmers like Ray Chiesa, who acknowledges that he entered farming somewhat reluctantly, will say that, most days, the advantages of the lifestyle outweigh the disadvantages. He and his wife, Eugenia, sell the vegetables from their small farm at a produce stand where Koebel makes frequent appearances.
"At first I wasn't too thrilled when I took over the business my father-in-law started in 1924. But over the years, I've learned to like it and I enjoy it now--working outdoors, watching the stuff grow," Chiesa said, taking a break between customers at his farm stand. "Sometimes you have a problem with the weather or one thing or another. Then you come up here and a lot of people come in and say, 'Oh, I'm glad you're still here.' That always makes you feel good because you know you're doing something right."
Koebel says this is the kind of passion that fuels him--and what he wants to continue to share with those he feeds and those he teaches.
"My relationship with the farmers is all about that. For them and for me, it's more than trying to create a paycheck, it's having passion," he said. "There is a lot of passion that goes behind this for a lot of people. It's a real sense of accomplishment for them to be able to take the dirt and create something that gives people sustenance and that people enjoy and that is beautiful.
"Do I want to be a part of that? Do I want to encourage others to be a part of that? Absolutely. I'm one of those people who believes, as strange as this may sound, that food has energy and if there is a tremendous amount of good, positive energy that goes into the growth of something, when you ingest that, you're ingesting that energy as well. It makes us all better."
For more information about Rogue Chefs, call 650-712-2000 or visit www.roguechefs.com.
Jennifer Harrison, a reporter in Davis, can be reached at email@example.com. Barbara Arciero, an editor for the California Farm Bureau Federation, can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.