He grows it, he cooks it
July/Aug. 2011 California Country magazine
The concept of farm-fresh dining takes on a new dimension when the restaurant owner is a farmer, too. Meet Dominic Mercurio. He grows more than 40 varieties of produce on his San Joaquin Valley farm, which he then serves in his family restaurants on Monterey's historic Fisherman's Wharf.
It all started about 20 years ago on a duck-hunting trip, when Mercurio—a restaurateur whose family is part of Monterey's famous fishing legacy—noticed some property for sale in the Los Banos area. He succumbed to the lure of the land and convinced friend John Madden to partner with him in purchasing the 25-acre almond orchard. (And, yes, this is the same John Madden as the Pro Football Hall of Famer.)
Mercurio looks back at his foray into agriculture and acknowledges, "Farming was a risk. I really didn't know anything about it.
"First I ordered every book there was about almond production, which wasn't a lot, but there was enough," he said. "I just read everything, from beginning to end, some of them twice, and started asking a lot of questions."
Turns out, the orchards flourished and the partners were able to purchase additional acreage. "Whatever I did, it worked," Mercurio said with a laugh.
In the meantime, the entrepreneur stayed busy in the restaurant business, as chef/co-owner of Domenico's on the Wharf and chef/owner of Café Fina. Both specialize in fresh seafood and Italian cuisine.
Not content with growing only almonds, Mercurio planted a garden that today yields more than 40 varieties of produce, including cherries, figs, pluots, heirloom tomatoes, Italian peppers, melons, zucchini, eggplant, cucumber and basil.
"When I first started doing it, mostly I'd give the food to my friends and family," Mercurio said. "I'd stop by everybody's house and I was Santa Claus with these fresh melons and tomatoes. Everybody just loved it.
"Then we got short one day at the restaurants, and I said, 'Let's do the tomato caprese,' and that went crazy," he said, of the simply constructed appetizer of heirloom tomatoes, basil and house-made mozzarella cheese.
Today, Mercurio's quarter-acre garden in Merced County yields enough fresh produce for both restaurants. It also provides a respite from the hectic pace of the food-service business.
"The garden is actually therapy to me, to tell you the truth," Mercurio said. "Usually Tuesdays and Wednesdays are what I call my farm days. I just love going out there and hoeing, getting on the tractor and rototilling. Whatever I do, I don't mind."