There's farming, there's urban farming, and then there's urban culinary farming. Courtney Guerra, 33, has done the latter for two years in an assortment of raised beds, hydroponic cylinders and a makeshift greenhouse at her Flower Ave Garden. Its location? In the most unlikely of places — just off Lincoln Boulevard in Venice.
Even in January, Guerra's vegetables are in full-on hustle mode. Fava bean shoots peek up underneath straw in a bed on the property line; tendrils of red Malabar spinach climb up a wire fence by the sidewalk; and hundreds of perfect little white Tokyo turnips crowd one another for space near a ramshackle house on the property. Out back, there's a burst of micro-greens.
All of this might be just the plot of another crazy dreamer, except that five days a week Guerra's produce and herbs are harvested for the kitchen of one of downtown L.A.'s most celebrated restaurants: Alma.
As Guerra ambles between the tightly packed beds, two little dogs nip at her feet, and she rips off pieces of this and that for a visitor to try. Among other things, she grows za'atar, a kind of Middle East oregano whose heady flavor goes right up your nose. A car horn blasts — “This is the 'urban' part of it,” she says laughing.
What Guerra grows for Alma, and its chef/co-owner Ari Taymor, are things you can't find in a farmers market. “That's what's interesting to chefs, that 'Oh, what is that?' where the flavor is not quite recognizable to the diner,” she says. That might mean micro celery, baby chicory or rau ram, also known as Vietnamese coriander. At one point she kept snails, but they were decimated by the drought.
She'll often pick vegetables early, as with this fall's conehead cabbages (“they were just so delicate and beautiful”), or let them bolt so their flowers can be used for garnishes, which is the plan for a wild-looking section of turnips. It's all part of working in concert with Taymor and his ever-changing New American menu. At one point she gestures to a plot of sprouting alliums and says, “The chef wants blossoms!”
Guerra is an encyclopedia of which plants a person can consume and admits, “I can't walk down the street without saying, 'That's edible. That's edible.' … It's a blessing and a curse.”
How she became the head farmer for Alma is as odd and organic as the garden itself. Guerra grew up in Simi Valley and distinguished herself playing volleyball in college at University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Santa Barbara, where she earned a degree in religious studies.
Tall, blond and tan, she looks the part of a professional beach volleyball player, which she was for six years, touring the country with AVP after college.
“How do you follow that up?” she asks. With a one-year stint in an office, which ended as quickly as it started, and then a turn at culinary school, if you're Guerra.
In 2012 she completed a two-year program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in the small town of St. Helena in Napa Valley. But she didn't want to be a chef in a restaurant. “It's like going into battle every single day,” she says. While in training, however, she worked in the kitchen and garden at St. Helena's Michelin three-starred Restaurant at Meadowood, which “opened me up to culinary farming being a thing.”
Guerra also audited classes taught by food activist Michael Pollan at Berkeley. Near the end of her studies, her love of cooking, farming and being outside coalesced into an unusual idea: Move to L.A. and start a culinary farm. “I spent the last month of my classes flipping through seed catalogs and picking out things to plant and plotting out the farm,” she says.
Less than two weeks after graduation, she rented the back house on a Flower Avenue property in Venice from a bachelor friend who was a bit of “hoarder,” cleaned up the junk, leveled the ground and built her beds. People in the neighborhood have been incredibly supportive, she says, even leaving seeds by her gate.
Fast-forward two years and her mini-empire is growing like weeds. Yet, she says, “From the day I started this, it has been random.”
It's hard to imagine something more random (or more L.A.) than her upcoming project with Udaya, an online yoga training and production company, which has a studio in Bulgaria for its filming. Guerra soon will spend two weeks there to set up a garden, which will provide a backdrop for Udaya segments to be shot in August about a raw chef/yogi and an ayurvedic healer.
She's also on a committee advising Los Angeles Trade-Tech College's culinary department on creating an urban farm and farm-to-table curriculum; she's a partner in a Venice private events space being designed around a farm; and she's planting gardens and teaching cooking at underprivileged schools for Alma Community Outreach, a nonprofit founded by Alma restaurant co-owner Ashleigh Parsons.
“It's my evil diabolical plan to put farms everywhere — to start taking over L.A.,” she jokes.
Still, the city can stifle a person (“everything is brown and gray”), so Guerra scratches the escape itch by foraging weekly for edibles on a 600-acre private ranch in Santa Barbara near Rincon Point.
“Foraging seems to be out-there and weird, but it's where we came from — we were hunter-gatherers, living off the wild. In the same animalistic kind of way, I'm going out in the wilderness, and I'm having to be very focused and quiet — those senses get really hyper-aware.”
Asked if she had to pay the ranch owner for the right to forage, she laughs. The ranch staff sees her takings, which could be wild mustard, radishes, fennel and oxalis, as “all things in abundance, and I bring back such a small amount relative to what they have there. They find it funny. … Why would anyone find interest in weeds?”
The goods she picks are for Alma, but she also makes the trip because “it's my sanctuary,” an area replete with dairy, goat, cattle and squab farms. “It's really what keeps me able to live in a city.”
Guerra wants other people to feel that connection, too. “It's bringing a place, the nature, the magic that I find — bringing it back with me and sharing it,” she says, whether it's her foraged wildflower bouquets at Superba Food and Bread, her educational outreach or the edibles adorning the pristinely composed plates at Alma.
It was not an ethereal experience with asparagus foam in Copenhagen or a plate of perfect escargot in France that inspired her — it was her grandmother. “She got me my first subscription of Bon Appetit, and she was the one trying all of these brave recipes for Thanksgiving dinners,” Guerra says.
In a break from her upbeat self, Guerra chokes up a bit. “Right before she passed away, Bon Appetit came and did their first story about the garden.”
Her voice trails off, and she jumps back into what drives her to play volleyball, cook, farm. “It's about mastering an art form. … Seeing what it looked like to devote your life to something and to be committed to a craft,” she says. “My grandmother was the beginning, she was the spark.”
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