The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shook San Francisco to its roots and sent the city into a funk. Tourism, our number one industry, collapsed; no one would set foot in the city. The Civic Center, the nexus of government and the arts, shut down as one building after another closed for retro-fitting. Transportation was a mess. Although the Bay Bridge reopened one month after a chunk of the upper span fell onto the lower, the whole freeway infra- structure was compromised, including the Embarcadero freeway, a looming double-decker that cast shadows along the bay. After a great deal of arguing between shopkeepers who were certain they needed the freeway and activists who had been campaigning for years for its demise, it was finally demolished in 1991, exposing a huge expanse of pavement right in the middle of the Embarcadero at Market, previously used for parking beneath the concrete lower deck.
Not long afterwards, Sibella Kraus called me to ask if I was interested in a farmers market in San Francisco that would bring together farmers and restaurants and sell to the public as well. Sibella invented the job of forager at Chez Panisse, where she had been working as a line cook. She quickly gravitated to her true calling, agriculture, growing lettuces in Alice Waters’ backyard and searching out artisanal farmers and producers to supply the restaurant. She soon realized that the more restaurants she could enlist to buy from her farmers, the more economic sense it made for everyone. Organic and sustainable farmers who had to charge more than big conventional farmers would be assured of a market, while restaurant kitchens would get super fresh, high-quality produce, which was not that easy to find twenty years ago. She called this endeavor the Farm-Restaurant project. But with a direct and regular urban-rural meeting ground, such as a farmers’ market, chefs and farmers could get to know each other, collaborate on varieties and develop new crops, and this would enrich the city’s menus and stir public interest.
Of course I said yes, eager to get something new going in the depressed city, and I joined the board that Sibella founded with Tom Sargent, a public/private developer whose dream was to establish a market on a pier in the bay. That proved to be more complicated than anyone thought, so we got permission from the Port of San Francisco to open in the now-liberated expanse of concrete in the middle of the Embarcadero. Sibella cajoled her farmers to come down. My restaurant, Hayes Street Grill, set up a breakfast booth to lure customers, and slowly the word got out that some beautiful seasonal produce was available–to everyone. The first peas, the first apricots, the first asparagus, so juicy and sweet. Perfumed white peaches and nectarines; a rainbow of berries. Incredible dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes. New potatoes, shelling beans, Romano beans, Blue Lake beans, French beans. White corn. Sugary clementines. Stop me. The whole thing just got more and more exciting for both restaurant and home cooks.
Sibella’s goal was to promote relationships, real connections between farmers and the urbanites of San Francisco. The more they understood each other and liked each other, the better it would be for everyone. The city dwellers would be seduced and nourished by the produce and demand more from a newly developing system of agriculture, centered around small family farms that used environmentally constructive techniques and grew for flavor rather than volume. We, a working board made up of farmers, restauranteurs, environmentalists, architects, civic-minded citizens, urban planners and developers, called ourselves CUESA–Committee for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture–but we all knew that the education would happen at the market when a kid ate his first Mission fig, a home cook discovered fresh butter beans, and a chef started building a menu on what she hauled off that day. Taste made the difference. Fruits and vegetables as delicious as these simply were worth a higher price, a price that allowed specialty farmers to sustain both their families and their beliefs.
Something else happened. A community formed around the market, a group of farmers and shoppers who came every Saturday rain or shine, who talked to each other every week, who became friends. The chefs who shopped at the market became close and everyone spread the gospel about the pleasures of this mindfully grown produce and artisanal food. Chefs began to identify farmers on their menus. Their patrons fell in love with a plate of savoy spinach and started coming down to the market themselves. For once, rural and urban residents formed an experiential bond.
When construction started at the Embaradero, the market moved to a parking lot at nearby Green Street, and when the Ferry Building was renovated, the developers begged us to move our market there, its current home. We put that location on the map and in turn gave our farmers a wider audience. Today, thousands of people from all over the world get the message about the joys of a sustainable food system. But the heart and soul of the market still expands in the same way–when someone is transported for the first time by the taste of a perfectly rip fig.