L.A.’s Best Produce Is Inside Josef Centeno’s Van
The dominant downtown chef talks about his favorite farmers and what he might make at his All-Star Chef Classic dinner.
Centeno would drive his SUV to farmers markets and shop for P.Y.T. and his other downtown restaurants (Bäco Mercat, Bar Ama, Orsa & Winston and Ledlow).
“It got to the point where I would have so much produce that I would have to call an Uber or two Ubers to help me bring the stuff back,” Centeno says. “That started getting costly because it was 30 bucks or 40 bucks each trip.”
So he ended up buying a Econoline van from one of his auto-repair guys.
“It’s matte black, which kind of terrifies everyone,” Centeno says. “We spray-painted JCG [for Josef Centeno Group] on both sides of the van.”
Centeno drives that van to the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesdays. He’ll also hit a farmers market every weekend: maybe Santa Monica on Saturday or Hollywood on Sunday. He’ll usually leave with 30 to 40 boxes of produce in his van. The van is also often packed with items from Rick’s Produce Market in East Hollywood.
We spoke to Centeno, who’s cooking alongside Amanda Cohen, Michael Voltaggio, Richard Blais and Wylie Dufresne for All-Star Chef Classic’s Vegetable Masters Dinner at L.A. Live on March 7, about his favorite finds at the farmers markets.
Here are some of the things that have filled up his van recently:
From Thao Family Farm: Taro root, sprouting broccolini, fennel, cauliflower, yu choy, satsuma sweet potatoes, “which are amazing”
From Weiser Family Farms: Magic Myrna and German butterball potatoes, baby carrots, parsnips, celery root, grains (part of The Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project) like Sonora wheat that Centeno uses to make P.YT.’s chapati bread
From Coleman Family Farms: lettuces, radishes, wood sorrel, rapini, edible flowers like borage
From Peads and Barnetts: lots of pork, including bacon, smoked ham, ham hocks, culatello, pork toro, pork chops
From Pudwill Farms: berries
From McGrath Family Farm: arugula, baby turnips, kale, lima beans when they’re in season
From The Garden Of: lettuces, puntarelle, turnips
From Rhodes Family Farms: grapes, persimmons
Centeno also gets fruit from Terry Ranch at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesdays but points out that the Asian pears he loves there are usually only available in November and December.
He’s also been digging the fruit at Rick’s Produce, where he’s purchased oro blancos, blood oranges, kumquats and passion fruit. Plus, Rick’s is where Centeno gets eggs and all the avocados, including bacon avocados, for his restaurants.
“He has crazy varietals,” Centeno says. “He has a bunch of different ones that are awesome.”
Centeno’s first kitchen job was as a dishwasher at a vegan Mexican restaurant in San Antonio. He’s long respected the complexity of produce, and working in L.A. has only enhanced his relationship with fresh vegetables and fruits.
“Being in California and having access to such amazing produce and building relationships with all these farmers, there’s a connection there,” says Centeno, who also runs fast-casual restaurant BäcoShop in Culver City. “And I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten back to eating more vegetables. There was a time when everything was chicharron and meat-heavy, but it’s not as easy to digest a lot of that.”
Plus, he enjoys how preparing produce allows for more creativity than cooking meat, and how serving seasonal ingredients means he’s always changing things.
Of course, there are challenges involved. For example, he doesn’t yet know what he’ll be serving at his All-Star Chef Classic dinner.
“It’s kind of a transitionary time of season,” Centeno says. “The only thing I can count on is that it’s going to be heavy on the brassicas.”
He’s imagining a brassica salad with miso dressing. Maybe there will be romanesco and rapini. He expects the dish to have some kind of to-be-determined sprouting element. He might throw in some radicchio. He’s asked his favorite farmers for suggestions.
“They all basically laughed and said, ‘We’ll let you know the week of,’” Centeno says.