As Chef Tim Veatch hunches carefully over a great, beautiful slab of chocolate torte layered with rhubarb mousse, slicing it into perfect rectangles for serving, he’s interrupted by a knock on the door. He looks up, then his voice bellows across the kitchen to greet farmer Bill Spencer with a huge smile. Spencer, the grandfatherly owner of Windrose Farm with a cherub face, comes in for a hug. He’s brought fresh produce, along with some pressing questions for Veatch about a pursuit they have in common: bread baking.
Spencer asks Veatch the best way to score leavened sourdough before baking, and the two are off. “Perfect timing,” says Veatch, as he pulls a loaf from its proofing basket, and scores it once right down the middle, as Spencer offers his two cents. Veatch places the loaf into a shallow iron skillet with a deeper inverted skillet on top, and into the oven it goes and the discussion continues.
Veatch has a special affinity with Spencer, as he does with his staff and other farmers, fishers and foragers in the area. “These people are my family, as well as my friends. This is why I wanted to come back to the Central Coast, to work with people like this.”
After stints in Morro Bay, then LA and the Bay Area at Cavallo Point Lodge, Farmshop, Camino and Saison, Veatch arrived at Villa Creek, a Paso Robles dining institution that’s currently celebrating its 19th year on the main square.
As it begins its 20th year, Villa Creek is aspiring to create something new and community-minded – a rebirth of sorts – with Veatch at the helm.
“Making great food is about sourcing great products and using the best of what a farmer can give you. You have to really get to know and respect the farmer, to know the product,” says Veatch.
Another favorite of Veatch’s is Pepper Creek Family Farms in Arroyo Grande. Along with her brothers, Jessica Newell runs the farm where her family has lived off the land for three generations.
“It’s so fantastic to be able to come out here with Jessica and talk through what’s ripening, what’s coming up next, what’s in the plans for planting.”
Veatch and Newell walk the rows, past baby white beets, flowering fava beans, various radishes and fields full of wild nettles. “We farm organically, and sustainably, which means there are cover crops and plants gone to seed as well as natural brush and weeds everywhere,” says Jessica. “We encourage all kinds of varieties to grow in the fields at different times to boost soil nutrition, and we don’t kill beneficial weeds. It doesn’t make for pretty pictures, but the result is delicious.”
Veatch agrees, as he samples rosa, white icicle and French breakfast radishes and heads to gather winter onions for the restaurant’s local halibut dish. They discuss which radishes work best for different uses and some plans for new produce Veatch hasn’t used before. And he is excited.
“This is what it’s all about,” he grins.
Back in the Villa Creek kitchen, Veatch uses Newell’s wild garlic and winter onions to make a creamy soubise sauce to cradle the local halibut. The fish gets grilled, then served alongside local hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and grilled asparagus. Veatch prefers to stick to simple food combinations and let the ingredients shine, along with a surprise ingredient here and there.
Veatch has already accomplished his own rebirth here in SLO County; he brought his family to settle here, then found a clutch of like-minded farmers, growers and makers and made it his own.
“For me, it’s about being able to give our diners something local, paying back into the community. The people who come in to eat, the famers who drop off produce, the winemakers here at Villa Creek and all over SLO County, foragers, local artisans, cheese makers…we all appreciate the local economy, supporting each other, buying things from our neighbors. From our family.”