Southern California Regional Forager/Executive Chef Anastacio “Chito” Rodriquez (who is also Executive Chef at University of Redlands, in Redlands, CA), Regional Executive Chef Peter Alfaro, and Fellow Taiyo Scanlon-Kimura organized visits to two Southern California partners whose products are popular with Bon Appétit teams.
Donning Hairnets and Stretching Mozzarella at Di Stefano Cheese
Who wants to go cheese tasting? Most Bon Appétiters would jump at the chance.
Not surprisingly, when Chito, Peter, and Taiyo announced a visit to Farm to Fork partner Di Stefano Cheese in Pomona, CA, they had plenty of interested company. Executive Chefs Amin Boussaksou of Biola University, Alberto Gonzalez of Pacific Café, Justin Alarcon of University of La Verne, and Frank Gurrola of Whittier College, and District Managers Jessica Reeve, Bob Rall, and Jotanna Proescholdt all came along.
Decked out in white coats, hairnets, and masks, the group toured the gleaming factory floor where nearly all the products are made by hand. They even had the chance to stretch their own mozzarella, while Di Stefano Cheese Vice President Stefano Bruno shared the story behind the company. His father, Mimmo Bruno, first learned how to make burrata — that indulgent mozzarella “pocket” filled with cream and shredded cheese curds — as a boy in his native Puglia. Later, Mimmo moved to the U.S. to create Italian-style cheeses. Di Stefano Cheese was the second iteration of these efforts, founded in the wake of the 2008 financial crisiswith the hope that it would support Mimmo’s four sons through college.
The company was virtually unknown until famed Los Angeles chef Nancy Silverton lent support, which then led to partnerships with other local chefs and distributors such as LA Specialty. Stefano noted that decisions such as the switch from sourcing from a dairy co-operative to a single farmer (in order to better control the quality of the milk) and offering a price premium (so the cows would be 80 percent grass-fed) have differentiated their business. The company recently started donating a penny per cup of burrata sold to secure year-round pasture access by 2025.
Adhering to the old ways of making cheese is fundamental to his family’s business, Stefano explained, adding “Four hundred years of tradition exist for a reason.” After the tour, the group enjoyed antipasti prepared by Di Stefano’s executive chef, including ricotta, mozzarella, and of course some creamy burrata.
Meeting Forward-Thinking Weiser Family Farms
On the SoCal team’s visit to Weiser Family Farms, a diversified organic farm nestled between the San Joaquin Valley and the Mojave Desert in Tehachapi, CA, second-generation farmer and owner Alex Weiser outlined the farm’s origins and philosophy.
In 1977, his parents left city life behind and bought an apple orchard to pursue agriculture. Alex joined the business in 1982 to manage sales at farmers’ markets, where he continues to cultivate connections with other small producers and with chefs. As a result of these conversations, Alex frequently experiments with different crops, and over the years has expanded the farm’s operations to include a variety of specialty fruits, vegetables, and flowers — and more.
Alex took great pride in showing off his farm and describing its unique attributes. The climate in the Tehachapi Mountains creates four distinct seasons, he said, ideal for growing everything from stone fruit to shishito peppers to palm-sized butternut squash. (Note to gardening geeks: The squash varietal is bred by Row 7 Seed Company, a seed-to-table venture founded by chef Dan Barber.) He’s also innately collaborative: Alex works with a neighbor to manage heritage breed livestock and experiment with biodynamics, raising Gloucestershire pigs, Nubian goats, and heritage sheep, chickens, and turkeys.
In light of growing awareness around the environmental impact of plastic straws, the farmers also started growing natural straw, then collecting and slicing it. They have gotten as far as testing some with bartenders in Los Angeles. Alex also regularly hosts farm dinners, including one for the 2018 LA Food Bowl with Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez and the late food critic Jonathan Gold. These dinners also provide a great space for what Alex terms “pork diplomacy,” the unique relationship building that comes with communally roasting a locally raised pig.
Alex also helped cofound the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project, which seeks to reintroduce forgotten wheat varieties to Southern California. Heritage grains offer numerous benefits: among other qualities, they are naturally drought tolerant and low in gluten.
Alex and Sherry Mandell, who works on The Grain Project, prepared a delicious lunch to cap off the tour, even offering zucchini bread and apple pie made with locally grown Red Fife flour. Southern California’s exciting and deeply rooted food heritage really came to life through this visit to Weiser Family Farms.