Exotic veggies make San Marcos farm a favorite with Michelin-starred chefs

Hidden inside greenhouses up a dirt road in San Marcos’s Twin Oaks Valley there are plants with leaves that taste like raw oysters, chocolate-flavored mint, lime and pineapple varieties of basil, snow-white strawberries, pink blueberries and full-grown tomatoes as tiny as currants. Launched in 2016 by Aaron Choi and his wife, Emily Chen Choi, Girl & Dug Farm’s unusual crops have attracted some of the nation’s pickiest customers: Michelin-starred restaurant chefs.

Before the pandemic, the farm’s 60 restaurant customers included all but one of the Michelin-starred chefs in Los Angeles, as well as some of the most acclaimed restaurants in San Diego, New York and Chicago. “Aaron is growing stuff that other people aren’t growing,” said Eric Bost, executive chef at Jeune et Jolie restaurant in Carlsbad, who first started buying produce from Girl & Dug at his former L.A. restaurant, Auburn. “He takes risks with new product and puts it out there, not knowing how it will turn out, and he gets so excited when he’s come up with something new.”

Over the past six years, Choi has experimented with nearly 130 specialty greens, vegetables, herbs and fruits. Many of these crops have failed, either because they didn’t grow well or they didn’t have the unique qualities that chefs were looking for. Sometimes persistence pays off. For three years, he tried growing the Peruvian root vegetable oca, but the crops were continuously decimated by heat, frost, flooding and wildfire. Now the crop is finally viable and oca is being served at chef Richard Blais’ new Carlsbad restaurant Ember & Rye.

Choi said he doesn’t mind failing, because it’s impossible to succeed without trying. “I call it the supply and demand dilemma,” said Choi. “You can’t create a market without product. I had a hunch that chefs might be looking for something new and I wanted to see if I could grow it.”

Girl & Dug’s crops now make up about 20 percent of the acreage in San Marcos and 80 percent of a 38-acre farm launched last year in Portland, Ore. Girl & Dug specializes in what Choi calls “kinder greens.” Unlike microgreens, the infant sproutlings that decorate plates as garnish at many restaurants, kinder greens are like “first-graders,” with much more flavor and physical definition, Choi said. This business — all grown from seeds he buys from companies around the world — includes spring green mixes named after Ella and Olivia, edible flowers and ice plant and plants with unique flavors, colors, shapes and textures.

Read the complete article at www.sandiegouniontribune.com.


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