Preeti Mistry is probably best known as the chef-owner of Juhu Beach Club, the now-shuttered Oakland restaurant that came to national prominence for its forward-thinking take on Indian street food — and for its outspoken chef’s willingness to speak out about their experiences as a queer, brown, immigrant chef. These days, however, Mistry isn’t cooking much, at least not in a professional capacity. Instead, for the past three months, the chef has been trying a new profession on for size — as a farmer. “Sort of,” Mistry says.
As the chef explains it, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the Bay Area in full force back in March, Mistry and wife/business partner Ann Nadeau were in the middle of a “staycation” in Guerneville, up in Sonoma County, at a cabin the couple had recently bought as a vacation home. And so, Mistry tells Eater SF, when the shelter-in-place orders came down, the couple wound up staying at the cabin…and then just never left, eventually canceling the lease on their apartment in Oakland.
Eventually, Mistry wound up connecting with Leslie Wiser and Sarah Deragon, who run Radical Family Farms, a small family-run farm in Sebastopol that specializes in hard-to-find Asian heirloom vegetables — and the couple agreed to take Mistry on as an intern. So, with COVID-19 throwing the immediate future of Mistry’s cooking career into question, the chef dove full-on into farming life, even earning the nickname “the Prince of Basil” from the farm’s owners — a reference to Mistry’s very “detailed” basil snipping technique.
Eater SF spoke to Mistry about their new life as a farmer and how the experience has shaped plans for what they hope will be their next big project: a SingleThread/Blue Hill at Stone Barns style farm restaurant designed to showcase BIPOC chefs and non-European cuisines. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eater: What has the transition from chef to farmer been like for you?
Preeti Mistry: As a chef, I’ve always been working with small farmers, women farmers, and POC farmers — so I’ve always been interested. I started [my internship] in mid-April, so it’s been like three months, three days a week. It’s hard. It’s not easy. I’ve definitely had moments where I’m like, “Okay, I feel really miserable right now but I need to keep doing what I’m doing.” I was excited about the physical part of working on a farm. I’m a chef; I thrive when I’m moving my body.
My very first CSA harvest, it was still just the three of us [Mistry, Wiser, and Deragon]. It was pouring rain and 40-something degrees outside. We were out there harvesting radishes, and it was cold, and my jeans were completely drenched. At one point, I was just like, “This is not fun anymore.” And the last few weeks, it’s been fucking so hot.
I think these are all important life lessons. It’s no different than being in a restaurant at whatever point of night and there are all these dishes to be done, and no one else is going to do them.
Will this be a permanent career change — or, if not, how do you think your experience on the farm has changed the way you approach things as a chef?
It seems to me like the government’s response to the pandemic is dictating some of that. If we had gotten our country on the right path, we probably wouldn’t have gotten rid of our house in Oakland. We can’t predict a lot of things, but I don’t see myself being at a restaurant cooking for people in any traditional way anytime soon. If you actually care about your people and your community, the types of issues that chefs and restaurateurs are grappling with every day is just incredibly challenging.
One thing I think about is creating a farm that farms from the menu. Most restaurants are like, “We do all this stuff that’s organic — our asparagus and our heirloom tomatoes, our peaches and cherries.” But shit, I can’t afford to buy organic onions. For me, “farming from the menu” means, what does this kitchen need to survive? Maybe the farm needs an entire field with three successions of yellow onions.
Normally when people do an internship [at Radical Family Farms], they pick and grow something of their own cultural heritage. I started growing fenugreek, and it did really well. I have more fenugreek than I know what to do with right now! In the process we started selling it to Heena [Patel] at Besharam. And now she’s asking for other stuff. We’re already growing two or three different varieties of holy basil for Nari. I asked Reem [Assil, the chef at Reem’s] if she wanted me to grow anything, and she said “How about za’atar?” So now we’re growing za’atar.
A few weeks ago, you tweeted about how having a restaurant on a farm is basically every chef’s dream — but that, at least in this country, the only people who ever have the opportunity to have a restaurant like that are white chefs who cook European cuisines. That led you to make a sort of pitch on Twitter: “If you want to invest in me and a bunch of other BIPOC chefs cooking Non-European cuisine on a small organic farm (think wood fired wok & tandoor), then DM me please or just send me money.” Is this idea of starting a POC-led restaurant farm a project that you’re actively pursuing right now?
This is something that I’ve been talking about forever in terms of my personal dream. Ann and I have gone through every crazy thing like, “Yes, we’ll have this farm, and there will be Rajasthani glamping tents where people will sleep at night” — you know, this whole scheme, which is very centering myself and also a very grandiose, expensive venture for the customer.
Over the years I’ve expanded my thinking. I think about Stone Barns [the New York-based farm, restaurant, and agricultural nonprofit]. I recently went and looked at their leadership, and the entire leadership is white — and mostly male, definitely all cisgendered, and probably all heterosexual. It’s not until you pore through their website into their public programs that you start to see a person of color or two in the photo.
I just think that people have this disconnect in their heads. Coming from the restaurant industry in cities, what is farm to table? And somehow farm to table is always California cuisine, or it’s bland, or it’s, you know, Rene Redzepi smoking herring or something. It’s not Indian. It’s not Chinese. It’s not Mexican. It’s not Thai. It’s like, what do you think — that all of our produce just grows in a factory? In fact, most of those people are people that were brought to this country, whether by their own choice or not, to farm the land, whether you’re talking about enslaved Africans or Hmong farmers. So to me, it’s just such a weird disconnect.
It goes along the same lines as what a lot of food writers talk about: organic missing the mark by becoming this elitist thing and therefore missing a lot of the younger generation and a lot of POC folks because they’re like, “That’s not me, that’s not my thing.” And yet we are those people. It’s like what [some people of color] say about organic farming — “Oh, you mean what my ancestors did called ‘farming?’”
I really like the combination of chefs creating a restaurant on a farm, whether that’s like Stone Barns or French Laundry in terms of locale and ethos, but not fine dining — not accessible only to the super-wealthy. But that also champions all of these non-European cuisines, whether [the chefs] are really famous and well known, or they’re just regular folks doing their thing, but doing awesome stuff — just to have the opportunity, whether it’s for one night or six months as a chef in residency. The opportunity [for that chef] to be like, I’m going to take my Nigerian cuisine, and I’m going to talk to these farmers three months in advance about certain things I want, and I’m going to go there and create this farm-to-table cuisine. If Preeti’s the main chef there, I’m going to work with them. We’re going to work together and create this thing, and give that opportunity to other chefs who cook non-European cuisines. And then, obviously, have the public be able to partake in that and look at what farm to table is in a very different way.
It’s kind of a grand vision. But a lot of things seem impossible that can be made possible.
I know for sure I’m not going to be the farmer — that’s not my end goal. So I need a farm partner. And my hope is that, given that this is not my original ego vanity project, but something that’s more community-oriented and nonprofit based, there are more stakeholders, so I’m hoping that we will be relatively successful in finding investment money and grant money.
I don’t know what the future holds, but [my wife and I are] probably not looking for a new apartment or condo in Oakland in the next year. This is where I want to put my energy.