Town To Table – A Chef In The Garden
Chef Diana Stavaridis plants seeds and ideas at local schools for the produce she serves at her restaurant.
by Richard Foss
The term Farm-to-Table is used frequently in the local restaurant community, though many who toss it around find it difficult to say exactly what it means. Manhattan House chef Diana Stavaridis’ understanding is practical rather than vague and mystical.
“I interpret that as a direct channel from the grower to the chef, working closely with the farmer, or even being the farmer yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do. I work with Deep Roots Garden Center, and right now we have a garden growing tomatoes, squash, radishes, cucumbers, carrots, chili peppers, chives, and Italian parsley. It really means something when the chef gets their hands in the earth, nurturing and developing varieties of fruit and vegetables that will be on the plate the day they’re picked.”
Much of her produce is grown by the community, specifically district school children through a program she created with local nonprofit Growing Great.
“At the moment I get about ten percent of our produce from the garden at Deep Roots and some of the rest from the five elementary schools that have gardens. I’m going to be starting at Meadows this month, where I’ll work with a group of fifth graders for five weeks. We plan the menu with the students over a month before, because you can grow radishes and some other items in three to five weeks. Every month I run focus groups at a school and teach the kids what they’re growing in their garden.
I start with two sessions about what foods get them excited, what they like to eat, and then I engineer a program for them to put a dish on our menu. Last time we made Swiss chard agnolotti, and we brought 30 kids to the restaurant on a field trip and taught them to make the dish. For a whole month the kids are allowed to bring their families and come into the kitchen to make that dish with me. They love it. They get their name on the menu and they have the experience of being in a restaurant eating a dish they designed and cooked, made with herbs and vegetables that they grew.”
The program teaches the children about nutrition, about ordering and dining in restaurants, and other elements of food security and economics. Many students have come up with suggestions to expand the program.
“They’re interested in making sausages, cheese, smoking bacon… some stuff would take at least a half day and I’d like to arrange a field trip so that would be possible. They always want to learn more, they’re so excited. Some of them email me even a long time later and ask questions, so I know they’re still learning on their own. Many are now at Manhattan Beach MIddle School and have asked me about doing classes there.”
This program that connects children with ancient food skills came about in a modern way.
“When I moved here I googled ‘elementary school gardens’ because I wanted to find out if there were any around here. The first thing that popped up was Growing Great, and as soon as I saw what they were doing I knew I had to contact them. Jill Coons and Jennifer Jovanovic developed this program and we have quite a partnership going. They put the gardens in these schools, funded the seeds and maintenance and work to integrate the gardening and cooking into lessons about nutrition and food security. I love being involved in it. I love teaching and I love kids. I can sit and talk with them longer than I can talk with adults.”
So she’s a hit with children, but that demographic doesn’t go out to fine restaurants often. Are their parents also fans? Happily for Diana, even though she didn’t grow up in the South Bay, her background has served her well. She is the daughter of a Greek immigrant who taught her about Mediterranean flavors and subsequently served under several great chefs.
“I cooked for Neal Fraser at Grace in the mid-Wilshire area, then ran his BLD restaurant for about five years. Then I studied in Paris and London. My partners found me when I came back. They saw this space and knew they wanted to open here, but they needed a chef and a concept. My partners were passionate about what I wanted to cook: scratch-made, super seasonal, fun and playful on both small and big plates. I was an artist when I was a kid and almost went to art school and I’m very particular about how things look. You start to eat with your eyes, as the saying goes, and I want you to see each vegetable, see how it’s cooked instead of being hidden and buried. I have been drawn organically and naturally to creating a landscape look where you can see what you’re eating. ”
That hyper-seasonal, hyper-fresh agenda means that Manhattan House makes things that most restaurants buy.
“We pickle our chillies, cucumbers, and radishes, infuse our own oils, and make all of our ice creams and sorbets. Same with gluten-free crackers, made with flax, pumpkin, and chia seeds, mushroom stock, and tomatoes. We cook down 20 pounds of mushrooms to make two cups of stock – that’s enough for two or three days. And of course we cure our own meats and smoke our own bacon.
We make 12 loaves of sourdough each day, 24 on weekends, six loaves of brioche every other day. We’ve been using the same sourdough starter for a year and a half and we feed it every day. The dough sits overnight to develop a great flavor and texture, which is the French style of baking. We cook it in cast iron pots to recreate the steam that you get from the traditional technique. We’ve had people from the community who have come to our back door trying to buy a loaf, and we have just started selling it to go.”
After just over a year in business, Manhattan House is doing very well and Diana is full of ideas for new projects. There are plans to sell their pickles, condiments, and other items and she hinted that in time she and her partners might seek a second location in the area. She also has been asked to give classes for a new demographic: students who are a lot older and taller than her fifth graders.
“We have a lot of adults who want classes in bread, brioche, ice cream. A lot of locals in the community are interested in classes, but I really do have to run a restaurant. I have 10 students in that kitchen who are my most important people because they keep the place going. I have a great team here that is dedicated and great at what they do. Though I practically have to force myself to leave any time we’re open because I’m attached to this place, I know they can step in when I’m gone and could keep things going if I spend part of my time elsewhere.”
In time, Stavaridis may open other restaurants and she wistfully mentioned her dream of someday cooking at a restaurant on a farm. For now she is focused on Manhattan House, her education programs, and the passion for surfing that brought her to Manhattan Beach long before she ever touched a stove here. Her uncompromising dedication to reducing the distance between farm and table is changing the way two generations think about food. B
by Richard Foss