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Bounty Hunter

Kerry Clasby has made a name for herself by supplying America's greatest chefs with some of America's greatest (and rarest and occasionally weirdest) produce. We go behind the scenes with the passionate and secretive forager to see how she does it.

Author Michael Kaplan Photography Jeff Minton

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Picture 5 of 7

Clasby's finds on the cutting board

IT’S NOT UNTIL I’M LYING FLAT on my stomach on a steep, muddy hill off a four-lane road somewhere outside Los Angeles that I recognize the lengths to which Kerry Clasby will go for watercress.

Minutes before, we pulled the car over, clambered past a guardrail and descended a precipitous 50-foot slope stubbled with sticker bushes. At the bottom was a stream, which offered uneasy crossing via a crooked path of slippery rocks. On the other side: a scattered handful of wild watercress and celery plants. Clasby happened upon this patch years ago while out on a hike. Wild watercress is uniquely delicious and nutrient-rich, but doesn’t last long after it’s cut, she says—meaning serious cooks will pay a small fortune for it. (One condition of her showing the patch to me was that I not reveal the location.)

Produce in hand, Clasby started nimbly back up the hill. I immediately fell behind. “Think of the leaves on the ground as steps and you’ll get right up,” she said. I lumbered awkwardly and, with just a few more steps to go, went right down. “Grab a tree trunk!” she yelled from the top as I floundered helplessly in the dirt.

All this, I think, for a bit of watercress.

I first met 53-year-old Kerry Clasby last year, though I didn’t know who she was at the time. Not many outside the culinary realm do. It was at a Manhattan dinner party hosted by chef Kris Morningstar, whose restaurant inside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ray’s and Stark Bar, is widely lauded as one of L.A.’s best; the party was to introduce New Yorkers to his cooking. I sat next to Clasby, a slender and energetic woman with silvery shoulder-length hair, an easy laugh and, as it happened, five avocados in her purse.

They were Surprise avocados, she announced, before slicing one open and divvying out pieces among us. Though we’d all eaten our share of avocados, this was like nothing any of us had encountered. The skin, a perfect shade of dark green, felt as thin as parchment. The fruit itself had a creamy consistency. Spread across a hunk of baguette, it tasted as rich as French butter. As good as avocados are, I never knew they could be this good. This was a special avocado. This was an avocado that ruined all other avocados for you.

And that kind of response—the upending of expectations, the forcible redefining of every preexisting idea of what food can be—is what’s made Kerry Clasby, professional forager, a stealth weapon for many of the top chefs in America.

A FEW MONTHS AND SEVERAL PHONE CALLS LATER, I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a convertible with Clasby at the wheel, zipping along California blacktop. She has agreed to give me a glimpse into the secret world of rare, ultra-high-end produce. Our first stop is McGrath Family Farm, in the town of Camarillo. Clasby comes here for greens, dandelions, baby kale, purple curly mustard and wrinkly Thumbelina carrots. The farmers greet her with hugs and, of course, things to taste. “I give them a lot of business,” she whispers, then pops a perfect strawberry into her mouth.

Her life wasn’t always lived so close to the land. The daughter of a venture capitalist who helped finance the early days of high tech, Clasby married a successful hotel developer in 1985 and seemed destined for a life of private planes and haute cuisine. The marriage didn’t last, however, and in 1999 Clasby was on her own, a single mother of two boys in L.A.

When one of her sons contracted E. coli, Clasby vowed to feed her family only organic food. “I grew tomatoes biodynamically in my backyard and started going to farmers’ markets in the area,” she says. “Eventually I had too many tomatoes, and began selling them at the markets.” She started to obsessively seek out the finest produce in the state, and developed relationships with the small farmers she met. “There’s something about men and women who are willing to go against the grain, not make huge money, and do the right thing,” Clasby says. “I love those guys.”

In time, some chefs got wind of her relationships with the farmers and began asking Clasby to find fruits and vegetables for their restaurants. Fortunate to have good taste and great timing, she forged important alliances quickly. She brought Michael Mina buckets of rare, rose-scented geraniums for baking—just when he decided he needed them. For Shawn McClain at Sage in Las Vegas she procured 20 cases of Little Gem lettuces from the one farmer who was still growing them after the season had seemingly ended. When Matthew Accarrino at SPQR in San Francisco put in a request for scallop gonads (yes, those are a thing), Clasby tapped an old friend in New England to produce the goods. Mario Batali is so enamored with a pear of hers that he serves it unadorned as a dessert. L.A. chef David Myers still recalls a specific peach that he tasted when Clasby first pitched him her services. “It was a peach as the most perfect specimen,” he sighs. “It was the very definition of a peach.”

I’D SAY I’M MERELY EATING FRUIT IN THE CAR, but that would be an understatement. I’m devouring it. Sweet Rainier cherries; Harry’s Berries strawberries as juicy as the ripest of peaches; fat blueberries from Ventura; Blenheim apricots, which have a high sugar content because the farmers deprive the roots of water—all gathered from our previous couple of stops. I’m eating with such abandon I initially fail to notice that we’re approaching an avocado ranch. Actually, the avocado ranch, the one that more or less got me interested in Clasby and her bounty in the first place.

Collecting myself, I put a key question to my guide: What’s the secret? Hard work and good taste are important to a person in her job, but then there are many discriminating people who work hard. There must be something else.

“It’s a sixth sense,” says Clasby. She calls herself “the intuitive forager,” meaning she believes in thinking in nonlinear ways. “I’ve always had it, but it took me a while to trust it,” she says. “For example, there’s an incredible apple called the Pink Pearl. It’s rare and only grows in the summer. I deal with 200 farmers, and two years ago I saw one at an obscure market selling Pink Pearls. At the end of this summer, it dawned on me to buy those apples. Morningstar was all over them. That’s an intuitive hit.”

So was her decision to make a first impression on Myers with the unforgettable peach, to bring Mina the rose-scented geraniums, and even to hand me that life-changing avocado. It’s a sense of knowing what someone wants even before they do. Kim Canteenwalla, chef and managing partner of Society Café at Encore Las Vegas, has seen this firsthand. “It shows in what she gets,” he says, adding that his forthcoming Vegas restaurant, Honey Salt, will build a retail operation around Clasby’s goods.

From a distance, the avocado ranch looks like any other. It’s about 300 acres, and most of that space is devoted to Hass avocados, the kind you typically find in the supermarket. But on top of a hill, around a little house, there are a dozen trees: some small and gnarled, some tall and majestic, and all bearing Surprise avocados. Despite the fruit’s superior quality, Clasby says, it’s not widely known because big companies don’t want it. Surprise avocados are fragile, oversize and difficult to ship. Until she came along, this crop was grown mostly for the enjoyment of family and friends.

As she shows me around, Clasby reminds me that I am forbidden, per the terms of our tour, to name the ranch. It’s understandable—the last thing she wants is to have competitors buying up the avocados that have become synonymous with the name Clasby.

But there’s more. This is the mother lode. One of the men charged with managing the land here has been given a small parcel on which to cultivate whatever he pleases. He’s chosen to grow stuff from special seeds that Clasby gives him. Where they come from, she won’t say. This man is a burly sort (and nameless, per Clasby), with enormous hands and an agriculture degree from California Polytechnic State University. He makes his living growing big-money produce for his bosses, but his passion is evident in this little piece of farmland where the yield is all rare, heirloom, expensive, delicious and grown specifically for Clasby. There are chef José Andrés’ beloved caviar limes, sugar-bomb Golden Nugget tangerines that would never make it to the supermarket shelves, and baby savoy cabbage that’s so veiny it looks like psychedelic art. Clasby and the farmer enjoy some easy banter before doing a quick inventory on what he’ll be harvesting over the next couple of weeks.

Clasby and I end the day at the State Street farmers’ market in Santa Barbara. Musicians busk along the sidewalk and civilian foodies pick and sniff through the produce. Clasby, who uses the market as a weekly opportunity to connect with several of her farmers in one place, asks what I’m in the mood for. I say a peach, and she hands me one that feels as hard as a rock. I’m dubious, but I buy the thing and bite into it. And I am struck dumb. How can this be?

“It’s a particular kind of peach he grows: hard on the outside and juicy and sugary on the inside,” Clasby explains, gesturing to a bearded farmer behind a table overflowing with stone fruit. “But that’s the point. You need to know the grower and you need to know his fruit.”

KRIS MORNINGSTAR IS BUZZING around the kitchen of Ray’s and Stark Bar, his West Hollywood eatery. He’s agreed to cook a meal with whatever Clasby turns up over the course of our day of foraging. She and I have made ourselves comfortable on a counter across from the wood-burning oven, with a perfect view of Morningstar in action. He whips up dishes like wild celery soup (made with our hard-earned roadside celery) with goat cheese-topped croutons, and wild fennel with mussels, and a salad topped with big hunks of Surprise avocado.

Between frothing and slicing, Morn-ingstar sings Clasby’s praises. “I have one day off per week and I used to spend it at the farmers’ market,” he says. “Now I don’t need to because Kerry gets me better stuff than I can get on my own. She finds mulberries, the best sorrel, peas pulled from different resources. It’s amazing. We don’t even pre-order. We get in [Clasby's] truck and pick out what we like.”

And he’s not alone. Of all the fans of Clasby’s wares, she herself might be the most devoted—the aforementioned delivery truck is, in fact, her personal fridge. “My stuff is almost all I eat.” She takes another bite of the salad. “You would too.”

MICHAEL KAPLAN has become disenchanted with his local supermarket.

 

STARRED PICKS

Celebrity chef Mario Batali is one of Kerry Clasby’s best customers. At Batali’s three Las Vegas restaurants—B&B Ristorante, Otto and Carnevino, all inside the Venetian and Palazzo casino resorts—culinary director Jason Neve  is a big fan of her produce. Here are his top five.

CANDY-STRIPE FIGS: “You don’t see a lot of striped figs. And these are bright red on the inside! They taste great and look good on the plate.”

EMERALD BUTTER LETTUCE: “Small and dense, with a concentrated flavor.”

SAN MARZANO TOMATOES: “These are the real thing and almost impossible to find fresh outside Italy. Kerry started growing these specifically for us.”

MIXED PEPPERS: “Kerry gets us a distinctively flavored assortment of peppers, in colors that range from deep purple to orange to brick.”

SCARLET RUNNER BEANS: “Rather than serving dry beans, we get these in season and freeze them for the rest of the year. They’re black with purple streaks, and about as big as a nickel.”

One Response to “Bounty Hunter”

  1. Dominic Puccinelli Says:
    February 9th, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    If you love good fruits and vegies this featured article is a memorable one. So much so that I had to go into the archive so 3 different airline magazines to find it. Is there a way to get in contact with the lady in the article for a food connection?

    thanks and best regards
    Dominic

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