She moved here from Berkeley in 1985 to build a garden for Wolfgang Puck, thinking it would be only a six-month project. For a few years Crawford had been maintaining, along with a few other Berkeleyites, Chez Panisse's lettuce and herb garden, a project that had started with the restaurant's legendary owner, Alice Waters, taking some salad greens from Crawford's home garden.
“Alice came into the yard and said she wanted to borrow some salad because the Random House editor was coming over for lunch, and I just said, 'Help yourself, we have way too much.' She said, 'Well, if you have way too much, you can always bring it to the restaurant and we'll buy it.' I thought, 'Well, I could do that. I could have too much every day.'”
To hear Crawford tell it, the gardens were an experiment in unofficial urban homesteading that went terrifically right. She was growing a mix of greens, including frisée, chervil, arugula and nasturtiums, plus most every kind of lettuce, enough to supply a restaurant, all in yards around town.
But Crawford kept hearing interesting things about Los Angeles. In 1984, she had a cookbook author friend — the one who kept telling her that in L.A., money grows on trees — ghostwrite a letter to Wolfgang Puck.
“I said to him, 'I've got this salad garden for Chez Panisse and it's going really well and I don't really want to start selling to other customers in the Bay Area because I feel like it's something I did for [Waters], are you interested in something like this for Spago?'” Puck called her soon after, asking when she was coming down.
“Then when I got here, I realized that I could do it much easier all year round, because the weather was so much better,” she says, “so I ended up staying. I was only going to stay for six months, but I'm still here.”
“I started to make my own bread because I couldn't find any good bread to eat in Los Angeles
The little lettuce garden launched a quiet empire called Kenter Canyon Farms. You've seen their ubiquitous boxes and bags of mixed lettuces in many grocery stores. But in the early 1990s, it was a new idea partly kicked off by Crawford and her partner, Robert Dedlow.
Despite Crawford's mainstream success, she's still a fixture at farmers markets around L.A. It's at these markets that she's debuted her new passion project: Roan Mills, which sells flour, grains, breads and pastas.
“I started to make my own bread because I couldn't find any good bread to eat in Los Angeles,” she says. “I used to have to go up to the Bay Area to get bread and come back, and that was just ridiculous. I couldn't keep doing that, so I learned to bake and I learned to make tortillas, which I'm very thankful for because I really love knowing both of those things and I wouldn't have ever bothered if I'd stayed up there, because it was always good bread available.”
Crawford goes all in, and she soon began milling the wheat she bought from Bob's Red Mill. “My kitchen is my test kitchen, so it's all research, right? So I started milling my own flour and one day I looked at the wheatberries, and I realized, these are seeds,” she says. “It took me forever to make that connection, and I do nothing but farm.”
Wheat was added to Kenter Canyon's fields as a rotation crop, but the heritage grains Crawford chose introduced her to a community of “grainiacs.” This growing group of farmers and foodmakers grows and works with heritage grains, most often the wheats that were grown here before California was a state, back when farmers published booklets describing their various wheats in the manner of wine. (Yes, different wheats are supposed to have different flavors.)
Crawford and Dedlow figured that there wasn't a big market for wheat, so they decided to sell baked bread, too. The farm currently rents space for their baking, but an in-house bakery is coming soon, at which point they'll start selling to local grocery stores. It will be a challenge to infiltrate a market that's saturated with cheaper, processed, long-lasting loaves of bread. But Crawford has faith in L.A.'s young people especially. “Millennials are the ones who are really interested,” she says. “They're more do-it-yourself–oriented anyway, and they're curious and they're willing to try new things.”