Drive down Highway 99, and you can’t miss one of the great contradictions of the Central Valley: miles of farmland where so much healthy produce is grown, and the barrage of tall neon signs beckoning drivers to fast food restaurants.
And so, a year and a half ago, when chef Tara Hamilton decided to hoist up a tall sign that said “Organic Fresno” along the side of the freeway, she knew she was making a statement.
“We have the grand privilege of living in the food basket of the world, and we should have the most amazing food culture in the world,” says Hamilton.
But Fresno struggles with chronic poverty and obesity. It’s the kind of place where people camp out for hours when a new chain fast food restaurant opens up. Not really the kind of town where people queue up for homemade probiotic kefir and non-GMO raw vegan chickpea pate. But Hamilton, an organic raisin farmer who moved to Fresno from Toronto, is up for the challenge.
“Our mission is Nutrition Access. In two words, that’s what it is: nutrition access. We feel that you have the right to nutritionally dense food,” says Hamilton.
Hamilton was born in India and raised in Canada. Her father was a Sikh priest, and her mother used to cook free meals for hundreds of templegoers.
“Food is a very intimate act, but we don’t see it that way,” says Hamilton, sitting in a booth at the restaurant. “My mom trained me to view it that way. We take food into our bodies three times a day. Where did it come from? Who grew it? Do you know? And if you don’t know, why are you putting it into your body? Really, it’s that personal.”
So Hamilton goes to great lengths to explain to customers just where each ingredient comes from. Each laminated tabletop features the story of a local organic farm that supplies the restaurant. On weekend nights, she even dons a microphone headset and makes a presentation about each course.
Hamilton’s six kids all hang out at the restaurant, the older ones helping to cook and serve the food. The rest of the staff is mainly volunteer.
Local food activist Rachel Carpenter is juicing watermelons, rinds and all. She’s decided that volunteering at Hamilton’s restaurant is the best way to change Fresno’s food culture.
Chef Tara Hamilton leads a cooking class.
“The disparity here is just ridiculous. Being the No. 1 agricultural county in the whole United states, then we’ve got pockets that rival the Katrina flood basin,” says Carpenter, over the whir of the juicing machine. “What she’s doing here is very affordable, especially when you talk about organic foods.”
$10 for a vegetarian lunch entrée, soup, and salad. $12.50 if it’s got meat. And if people can’t afford that, Hamilton has a pay what-you-can policy for some menu items.
“Natural food, which is what organic food is, should be available to everybody,” she says. “I really think that you should have to pay a premium to have chemicals sprayed on your food.”
But she’s having a tough time drawing locals. Some of them question the restaurant’s location: an easy stop off the freeway, but sandwiched between cheap motels in an area known for the sex trade.
But Hamilton has decided to put a positive spin on that, too.
“OK, there’s prostitution, and it’s not maybe a trade that I agree with, but does prostitution have any link to food?” she sighs. “Yeah, it does, I mean they created one of the most famous pasta dishes that there is, pasta putanesca, in the style of a prostitute, where you can use canned ingredients, like olives and capers, and create a delicious sauce. Why talk about what we don’t like, why not focus on food?”
So she’s decided to feature pasta putanesca on the menu. And snap an iPhone picture of any johns who pull into her driveway.
Organic Fresno’s pulling out all the stops to attract local customers to the neighborhood. They host weekly cooking classes featuring Fresno-grown ingredients – like the valley shake, a dense and surprisingly sweet blend of almonds and raisins. There’s also a valley almond-raisin pie.
A Valley Shake and black bean burger.
And part of the restaurant will soon be a market to buy organic produce and other local products.
But still, 80 percent of Organic Fresno’s customers are out-of-towners: people heading to Yosemite, Southern California, or the Bay Area who want an alternative to chain restaurants. People like Steven Aardal, who pulled in on a trip up the 99 from Orange County with his wife and son.
“We said we refuse to have food that’s not wholesome, not good for us,” says Aardal. “We’re driving in the car for seven hours.”
They googled “organic food” as they were driving, and found the restaurant got lots of five-star Yelp reviews.
The restaurant is trying to attract tourists and locals alike with a weekend dinner theater. Chef Tara Hamilton writes the scripts and acts in the plays. Right now it’s a whodunit about who started the wildfires in Yosemite.