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Americas

The Asian migrant farmers supplying top Californian restaurants with the freshest produce

  • The Thao Family Farm is at the heart of southern California cuisine
  • The Fresno farm run by Hmong immigrants is more about family and building a community than growing food
PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 1:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2018, 9:24am

Women stoop amid the heat, drawing their hoes through the dirt. Only their dusty brows are visible between their straw hats and the scarves wrapped around their mouths. In the yard, chickens cackle in their squat cages. Somewhere, a pig squeals over her litter of newborns.

This patch of farmland wouldn’t be out of place in the Mekong Delta, or in Laos’ high rice country where most of its labourers were born, except that it’s 200 miles (320km) south of San Francisco and 200 north of Los Angeles.

This is the epicentre of “California cuisine”. Fresno County is home to what might be the most fertile soil in America. Specifically, it is these 10 hectares (25 acres) off Route 41 that are hallowed ground for the state’s best chefs.

A low-slung, ranch-style house behind an electric gate is home to the Thao family; the fields surrounding are the Thao Family Farm: birthplace of the some of very best produce, and purveyor of some of the freshest, most pristine, most flavour-packed raw ingredients this planet can sustain.

On a sunny day in August, there is a celebration at the farm: the second annual Thao family lunch. It’s a way to thank their many friends and customers, to give back to the community, and to celebrate the year’s success – as well as a much-needed respite from the daily toil that is running a farm in which everything is still grown, processed, and packed by hand.

The Thao “family” is much larger than Vang Thao and his wife, Khoua Her, their 10 children and their ever-growing group of grandchildren. A large white marquee has been erected to shade the crowd from the 40-degree Celsius heat.

Under that tent is gathered the real story of food and dining in California: tables of Hmong farm workers in their straw hats, Laotian uncles in Aloha shirts drinking toast after toast of Her’s notorious home-made lao lao – a fiery rice liquor steeped in herbs.

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Congressman Jim Costa of California’s 16th district is here smiling and shaking hands. Crowding two or three tables in the middle of the festivities are hip looking young people in LA Dodgers caps and sun dresses, nursing beers and shucking oysters, bleary-eyed from 48 hours of food prepping and partying.

They drove nearly five hours to get here and will have to head back to Los Angeles first thing in the morning to work their shifts at some of the most esteemed restaurants in the country.

Everyone’s hard work is obvious in the overflowing buffet table, so Californian it could double as the state flag: rows of typical Asian steamed fish are served alongside fresh salsa verde; lemongrass-roasted chicken marinated in fish sauce; a pungent Southeast Asian salad of mashed fresh eggplant; pork that was slaughtered from the family’s stock and slow roasted for 12 hours, served with a barbecue sauce of stewed local stone fruit, and a stock from the pig’s snout and ears; dry fried long beans; a simple Hmong soup of boiled pork and home-made tofu; and a salad that is nothing more than lightly dressed tomatoes – but the best ones that anyone gathered here has ever tasted. In large coolers, Pacifico beers bob next to bottles of Taiwan Beer, and Beer Lao.

Thao is in his element; a straw cowboy hat shadows his broad smile. His limited English does not stop him from talking to everyone at the party. His son, Kong Thao, 33, who has increasingly become the face and spokesperson of the farm is noticeably absent, hiding somewhere to sleep off the exhaustion of a new baby, long nights of working over the grill, and a belly full of lao lao.

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Vang Thao and Khoua Her’s story is not a unique one, especially in California’s Central Valley. Over 12 per cent of Fresno’s population of more than half a million people are Asian, with almost four per cent of the population, including the Thaos, identifying as Hmong – an indigenous people common in Southeast Asia – with another one per cent identifying as Laotian. 

Like many in the community, the Thaos fled violence in Laos to settle temporarily in a refugee camp in Thailand where Kong Thao was born and would spend the first three years of his life. Thirty years ago, with the help of family in the area, they made the big move to America.

What is unique about the family is their success. For Thao and Her, farming was the only way of life they knew. Like the many other immigrants around them, they started as labourers, working their way up to renting small plots of land to grow just enough for themselves and to make a little money to survive. They borrowed seeds and equipment from family members.

We started with that,” says Kong Thao repeating the story he’s told countless times, “leasing two acres, then four, then to five and as we grew eventually we were able to get this property”. That was almost eight years ago. “This is the first time my parents can actually live on the property they farm.”

Pretty much everybody that buys from me I would consider a friend. What we do isn’t just produce, its relationships.
Kong Thao

What makes Thao Family Farm’s produce so extraordinary? That is a tricky question with no easy answer. The development of something as seemingly simple as the perfect pepper can take years, even decades. Produce reflects its growers’ tastes, instincts and expertise. An eggplant isn’t just an eggplant, it is a point of view. At Thao Family Farm that point of view is Her’s.

“My mom is a seed hoarder,” says Kong Thao, laughing. “When something is at its peak, she’ll go tag the nicest ones of every variety and no one’s allowed to touch it. Then when it’s time, she’ll go harvest it and save the seeds.

“Today,” he says, “there are a lot of things that we grow that you just can’t get seeds for.”

Over the years, and under Her’s watchful eye, their produce has become something extraordinary. The best chefs can sense the quality across the crowded LA farmers’ markets where the Thaos have become fixtures.

“It’s the chefs who really help drive our table sales,” says Kong Thao. “If Evan Funke [the star chef of Italian hotspot Felix, in Venice, California] comes to the stand, customers know what he looks like and want to see what he’s buying.”

“They’ve always had a huge spread of vegetables at the LA farmers’ markets, so it’s hard to miss them and their produce,” says Josef Centeno, the powerhouse chef behind Bäco Mercat, Ledlow, Orsa & Winston, P.Y.T., Bar Amá, and Bäcoshop.

“There’s a lot of variety and a lot of each variety. I love that. Lots of bitter greens, brassicas, the best peanuts, arugula, herbs, eggplant, great okra, jicama, green beans, sweet potatoes. And it’s always consistently great. I use their vegetables at all of my restaurants. They’re part of the culinary community here and play a tremendous part in me being able to do my job.”

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Trends towards local ingredients, frequent menu changes, and hyper-seasonality have also helped the Thaos flourish.

Today, there is a market for a diversity of produce that simply didn’t exist even 10 years ago. Diners are willing, even excited to try new things and chefs have embraced the flexibility to use new ingredients at a moment’s notice or swap out things that are unavailable.

All of which is a boon for farmers like the Thaos who try to mitigate their farms’ small size and crops’ propensity to fail with as many varieties as possible.

“Over the course of the year, we have close to 300 different items,” says Kong Thao, pointing into the fields. “There’s nine varieties of eggplant over there, here’s 30 varieties of tomatoes, there’s three varieties of bitter melon. There’s certain things that I don’t see anywhere else.”

Today, under his watch, the buzz of the farmerss’ market is increasingly moving online. Kong Thao’s personal Instagram (@kongthao03) – a mix of pictures of his favourite restaurant meals, the family, and produce ripening on the vine – has become a foodie favourite.

When pressed for names of his customers, Kong Thao fires off a list of dozens of restaurants, a veritable heat map of the most famous, most influential places to eat in Southern California: Botanica, Broken Spanish, Animal, Trois Mec, Good Girl Dinette, Night + Market, Felix, Baco Mercat, Gjusta, MTN, Majordomo, Republique, AOC, Rustic Canyon, Sqirl, Little Door, and many more.

“Pretty much everybody that buys from me I would consider a friend,” says Kong Thao. “We don’t just talk about produce, it’s, ‘How’s your family?’ What we do isn’t just produce, it’s relationships.”

One of the farm’s closest friends is legendary chef Andy Ricker, one of the fathers of modern Thai cooking in America. Ricker depends on the Thao Family Farm for the Thai chillies he uses at his restaurant Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon.

“I had the great pleasure of visiting the farm a while back and got a chance to tour the fields, have a great Hmong-style lunch with his family and even have a conversation with his dad in Thai,” remembers Ricker.

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“During the lunch, we had several shots of his mom’s lao khao [the Thai name for lao lao], which tasted a lot like the local hooch made near where I lived in Chiang Mai, and I left with a couple of bottles in my trunk. A few weeks later, I grabbed one of the repurposed bottles mistaking it for Crystal Geyser [a brand of soda water] and took a massive swig. I nearly spit my teeth out!”

The morning after the party, Kong Thao and his parents have retreated to the family home to beat the heat and nurse their hangovers. While lao lao is still being passed around, the Thaos abstain – there is work to be done.

Thao gets ready to head back into the fields, but his wife is upset – during the celebrations someone took advantage of the commotion and stole one of the family’s cherished pigs. At least, they know it wasn’t one of the guests. The guests were all family.