May 27, 2012,  San Francisco Chronicle, Yvonne Michie Horn

On an estate in Napa Valley, in a former vineyard in the Santa Cruz mountains, in a Los Gatos backyard, three women are working the soil in gardens that set the stage for memorable meals in three of the Bay Area’s Michelin-star restaurants.

What puts these innovators on the leading edge of restaurant gardening is perfection of their produce, whether it’s a rare heirloom carrot or a sowing of Ficoide glaciale, a leafy, frosty succulent that is rivaling arugula in their chefs’ kitchens and soon may be finding its way local nurseries and perhaps your own garden.

I caught up with Gretchen Kimball, who’s garden inspires the elegant and whimsical cuisine at the  Restaurant at Meadowood (three stars) in St. Helena; Cayce Hill, who grows produce for San Francisco’s Sons & Daughters’ (one star) light, seasonal dishes; and Cynthia Sandberg, whose daily harvest supplies Manresa in Los Gatos (two stars) with the foundation for its “seasonal and spontaneous” menu. Each arrived at the gardens they tend by a different path, yet they all share a passion for farming methods that employ organic and biodynamic techniques.

Gretchen Kimball, the Restaurant at Meadowood.

Gretchen Kimball grew up in the Napa Valley where she attended the valley’s first Montessori school. “My career path started there,” she says. “I was always in the school garden.” What she saw inspired her artistically. “Immediately out of high school, I set out to explore the world of landscape design, fine art and languages,” she says, “which took me to five different schools in four countries over a 12-year period.”

Everywhere she went she created a little garden. “Window boxes, pots on fire escapes,” she says. “In Mexico, I planted a small plot of empty land next to my house.”

After she married, Kimball returned to Napa Valley in 2005 where she and her husband purchased undeveloped acreage in the western hills. Wanting to be more hands on regarding its development, she enrolled in a course in landscape design at UC Berkeley, studies that have enhanced the plein aire, landscape- painting retreats she offeres in exclusive  valley locations .

In 2009, she began an internship at the Napa Valley Reserve, a private membership winery estate just outside the Meadowood gatehouse. The Reserve’s property includes a showcase “kitchen” garden used by the Reserve and The (Deb – The should be capitalized) Restaurant at Meadowood. In close consultation with Chef Christoper Kostow and his culinary team, Kimball planted the fall garden that year.

Two-and-a-half years later, Kimball , age 36,  is head gardener for “everything you see growing here except for the vines,” she says. Nearby, she  oversees a small farm that produces  small amounts of experimental herb and vegetable varieties as well as large plantings of those  tried-and-true.

Additional help comes from a crew of two and also from restaurant’s staff. Chef, sous chefs, line cooks and servers all volunteer time on scheduled days.  “The result is a tight connection between the garden and the restaurant that’s passed on to restaurant guests by servers able to talk about ingredients with first-hand knowledge,” she says.

Radishes, turnips, carrots, and a continuous succession of greens are all harvested micro-size. When deciding what to grow, items that are expensive and hard to come by are get priority. Marigold blossoms, for example, are “oddly expensive.” Borage, an herb that produces blue, star-shaped edible flowers, is a staple. “Chef, who never looks at any ingredient in a conventional way, uses every aspect of the plant,” she says. “Stem, leaves, flowers.”

Kimball enjoys the happy coincidence that Meadowood’s farm garden is adjacent to the valley’s newest Montessori school and its garden. “Montessori to Montessori. My career path has come full circle!”

Cynthia Sandberg, Manresa

A former trial attorney, Cynthia Sandberg describes herself as an accidental farmer.

Sandberg didn’t know an annual from a perennial when she enrolled in a horticulture course at a community college in the interest of “prettying up” her tract house in Capitola. Interest grew as she took class after class while working as a trail attorney.

Her hobby evolved into a passion with a move to a century-old Ben Lomond farmhouse where she planted a vegetable garden. “I fell in love with tomatoes,” she says, “settling at first for 10 varieties with such success propagating them from seed that I ended up with hundreds of plants.”

At the end of the farmhouse driveway she stocked a table with the surplus and sold them for $1 apiece: “Seed money to try yet more tomato varieties,” she says.

Sandberg eventually quit her job as an attorney to concentrate on the garden, specializing in heirloom tomato varieties. The plant sale became an annual event. “I began to be known as the crazy tomato lady in the mountains,” she says. But it was a birthday dinner at Manresa in 2006 that sealed her fate.

Halfway through the tasting menu, Chef David Kinch approached the table and asked her if she would bring him some of her tomatoes Love Apple’s exclusive relationship with the restaurant blossomed.

Sandberg’s farm grows 100 percent of the produce Kinch puts on every plate year round and is currently expanding into raising of pigs, turkeys, chickens, rabbits and sheep for the restaurant.

Early in 2011, she moved to a steep site in the Santa Cruz mountains just 15 minutes from Manresa. Once a vineyard terraced for optimal southern exposure, it now is lined with beds overflowing with some 300 cultivars of biodynamically grown fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. Kinch, enroute from his Santa Cruz home to the Los Gatos restaurant loads the day’s harvest into his Volvo station wagon.

In addition to the annual tomato plant sales, which cover the “love apple” alphabet from ‘Amana Orange’ to yellow pear, the onetime horticulture student is now a teacher. Sandberg offers workshops at the farm throughout the year on everything from gopher control to backyard chicken keeping to, of course, how to build the perfect tomato cage.

Cayce Hill, Sons & Daughters

Cayce Hill’s “dream job,” with Sons & Daughters, is a culmination of varied experiences in quite different parts of the world.

The child of a landscape architect in Austin Texas, she often followed her father on nursery visits. But it wasn’t until after graduating college that she discovered the world of fabulous fruits and vegetables during four years in Mexico.

“Saturday markets. The sheer abundance,” she says. “It encouraged me to plant a little garden. Herbs and flowers.”

After marriage, her husband’s business transfers offered additional four-year stints in New York City and Tokyo.

“Planting a garden in New York City wasn’t possible,” Hill, 36, says. To satisfy her craving, she volunteered for Harvest in Harlem, a program of after-school cooking classes emphasizing fresh produce. “I was shocked that so many people didn’t recognize food in its original form,” she says.

In Tokyo, she was introduced to Japan Organic Agricultural Association, an organization dedicated to “farming as it should be,” and began an internship with a farmer in Ibarki prefecture.

In both New York and Tokyo, Hill found herself “plopped down” into fabulous restaurant scenes. “ By now I knew that what I wanted to do next was grow food for others,” she says.

The next move brought the couple to San Jose. “Three-hundred days of sunshine,” she exults. “Great gardening.” Master gardener classes followed. One day, perusing the bulletin board, she read of a San Francisco restaurant looking for a gardener.

The restaurant was Sons & Daughters, co-owned by chefs Teague Moriarty and Matt McNamara. The gardener they hired, Hill. The garden in which she’d work, space carved out in Moriarty mom’s Los Gatos backyard.

Hill’s gardening areas are small. But so is Sons & Daughters, with seating for about 29. Much of what Hill grows, mostly in raised boxes, are miniatures: ‘Hakurei’ turnips harvested when the size of a large pearl, perfectly shaped, bursting with flavor; clusters of grape-size ‘White Currant’ tomatoes.

An in-ground area is devoted to California natives with edible leaves or berries. In this area, too, is a miniature greenhouse lined with flats of plants in various stages of emergence.

“Right now, our goal is that one of the ingredients of each course on the menu come from the garden,” Hill explains. “ But that ingredient must surprise and intrigue the palate.” As garden and kitchen mature, the intent is that every dish include one of Hill’s surprising, flavorful gifts from the garden.

All photos: Brant Ward/The Chronicle