Richard Foss

Peninsula Natives [Event preview]

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PV Art Center pairs locally foraged food, plein air art

Chef Paul Buchanan created the menu for the PV Wild event, which celebrates the natural environment of Palos Verdes. Photo courtesy Primal Alchemy Catering.

The idea that art should reflect the place where it is made is common in music. Jazz artists go to New Orleans to record albums in the hope of picking up that city’s vibe, country crooners trek to Nashville, and the Grateful Dead once went to Egypt because that thought a concert at the pyramids would inspire particularly mystical jams. By all accounts the resulting Dead shows were not particularly good, but in other cases something about the setting brought out epic performances.

The Palos Verdes Art Center will host a rare event examination of the natural environment of the Peninsula by artists of two unrelated disciplines.  On Friday, March 16, a show will open of plein air works painted amid nature, with a dinner of both foraged and farmed items from the neighborhood. To Chef Paul Buchanan, who created the meal along with Tongva tribal culinary historian Craig Torres, the pairing makes perfect sense.

“The style of Plein Air is about a sense of place. You’re painting something in its own location… As plein air involves capturing the sense of a place with paint, we’re doing it with food.”

Buchanan is the founder and chef of Primal Alchemy catering, which has been far ahead of the curve for culinary trends. “We were local, seasonal, and sustainable before it was a fad,” he said. The chef spent part of his youth in Thailand, where he became fascinated with their use of local and fresh ingredients, and he trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco at a pivotal time. A cohort of chefs was exploring the flavors of foraged items and neglected ancient crops, and Buchanan adopted and extended their ideas. In the case of Palos Verdes, that involves highlighting the ingredients that most people don’t even consider to be food.

“The prickly pear is everywhere, and we made a vinegar out of it for the ceviche. The stinging nettle is delicious in soup, and we’re hoping that we’ll find some fresh. When it was in season last year we flash froze a bunch of it, and we’ll use that as a base if we can’t get enough this week. There is a local guy here only brings them to the farmer’s market when we ask for them. He may regard me as the guy who buys weeds, but he’s happy to sell them and I’m happy to buy.”

This illuminates one of the problems with trying to present a genuinely seasonal cuisine. A sudden cold snap or blast of warm weather can shift what is available. When interviewed a week before the event, Buchanan couldn’t predict exactly what would be in every dish.

“I don’t even know what the local fish will be in the ceviche at this moment. We won’t know until the day of the event what the boats are bringing in. Our menu for the event mentions “local and foraged greens” because we want to keep it pretty open. It has happened that we plan a menu like this and an ingredient isn’t available at the quantity or quality that we need, and in that case we need to change the dish.”

The emphasis on wild plants that are foraged is deliberate, and Buchanan is frank about his agenda. It’s one that he refers to in a set of classes he has taught to local children for 17 years.

“We want to remind people that there is food right at their feet, and most of us don’t open our eyes and look at it. There’s mallow growing everywhere and it’s a great green, much less bitter than arugula. I’ve got kids in my Days of Taste class that I teach every year, and when they find that this weed is edible they eat it by the handful. It’s a great resource, and one of many that we don’t use. That’s what PV Wild is, a look at the resources that were historically there and how they were used.”

Buchanan has collaborated several times with guest speaker Craig Torres, an author and historian who has spent years studying the diet of his Tongva ancestors. Torres is a member of a group of Native American educators called the Chia Collective and co-author “Cooking The Native Way,” which will be available for sale. His participation adds an awareness of ancient traditions to an event that celebrates a 19th century painting style executed by 21st century artists. The painters, chef, and historian all have things to say about the natural landscape of the Peninsula, and the gathering of talent promises an extraordinary evening.

To see the menu and purchase tickets for the PV Wild Farm-to Table and Foraged Feast, go to palosverdeswild.com.  $125. The evening  begins at 6:30 p.m., Friday, March 16. ER

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