French Laundry's Former Culinary Farmer Wants to Bring Artisanal Cannabis to the Table
Monday was Aaron Keefer's first official day at Sonoma Hills Farm, and it was a memorable one because of what he didn't do: he didn't walk the fields, he didn't tend to its culinary garden, and he didn't get his hands dirty. "I was down in their offices in the city," he told Food & Wine. "I wasn't even outside at all."
He made up for it on his second day and was at the Sonoma County, California farm before sunrise. He also had the chance to dig in, quite literally, on the almost 40 acres that will serve as his new workspace. Keefer has been a part-time advisor to Sonoma Hills for the past two years, but he recently accepted a new position and an official title as the craft cannabis farm's Vice President of Cannabis Cultivation and Operations.
For Keefer, the new role is an opportunity to combine his extensive experience as a chef and culinary gardener with his love for nature—and for cannabis. "I mean, I grew my first [cannabis] plant when I was 15 because I grew up in a farming community and that's just what kids did back then," he said. "You'd give it away to all your friends, it was just part of growing up during that era, I think. I was a chef when Prop 215 was passed in California, and I started growing medical marijuana for several different cannabis clubs down in San Francisco. I had some fun with that."
The Sonoma Hills Farm also gives Keefer the chance to, again quite literally, start from the ground up. Although the farm received a permit to cultivate one acre of cannabis outdoors and in a greenhouse last fall, there's nothing but "a couple of wells and some barns and stuff" right now. "It's raw earth. It was a working farm for many many years and it was first settled in the mid-1800s. It's great land," he said. "It has really beautiful soil full of silica. "I'm going to have a good time growing on it."
The farm is fortunate to have him, and his impressive CV. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he took a job at the Marin County Country Club and worked his way up to become its Executive Chef. But after his sons were born, he realized that he needed some time away from restaurant kitchens, and just some time, period.
"I started missing my son's basketball games and football games because you're [at the restaurant] until two in the morning or you're there on the weekends, or on holidays," he said. "Things changed for me and I got back into growing and really kind of fell back into my first love, which was being outdoors."
Keefer's grandparents were farmers and, through them, he developed an early appreciation for the natural world. He re-committed himself to learning about growing, to studying farms and gardens, and to traveling throughout the country to visit everything from the Blue Hill chef's garden to the grounds of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's former residence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
He trained in the culinary garden for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and eventually became the head culinary farmer for its acclaimed portfolio of restaurants, including the three-Michelin-star French Laundry. He credits his time with TKRG for advancing his "connoisseurship" when it comes to growing, and frequently uses the term "connoisseur product" to describe the level of cannabis that he believes Sonoma Farm will ultimately offer.
"I really think that we're going to be the first one to combine the wine country lifestyle with cannabis. It will be a combination of food, chefs, and the lifestyle that we already have here in Northern California," he said. "I think what we're trying to do is try to create the cannabis strain that you can have before you go to the French Laundry, or create something that will be a product that you can use at a dinner party."
The farm hopes to have its first cannabis harvest before the end of the year, and Keefer is looking forward to every step of the process, both for the farm and for the artisanal cannabis industry itself. "We're just at the beginning of this, so who knows where it's going to go," he said.
"I'm excited to see what else we have out there that people are going to be discovering. There really is power in plants."