The Model Farmer of Flora Bella

Vavine Tahapehi's first career, an agent at modeling agencies, was a jet-setting, high-stress kind of position. She's since moved on to something entirely different, but not necessarily lower-energy. After all, unloading crates of fresh produce at dawn is hard work, too.

These days, Tahapehi helps James Birch of Flora Bella Farm sell his leafy green vegetables and winter squash at farmers' markets. She also attends culinary school and writes a blog about her food adventures. Each week Tahapehi creates seasonal dishes that highlight what's in season at Flora Bella. She gave us her broccoli soup recipe below, perfect for warming up on a rainy winter night. She also shared the story of her journey from Australia to Los Angeles and from working with models to working with fruits and vegetables.

Julie: How does your family heritage and the food you ate growing up influence the food you make now?

Vavine: My mother is Papua New Guinean and my father, Maori. I was raised in New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea. My ethnic heritage and upbringing has most definitely influenced the way I eat, how I think about food and what I cook now. In Papua New Guinea cattle is virtually non-existent, pigs reign supreme and are often used in trade, ceremony and for tribal practices such as bride price. My mother is of seafaring people, fisher people and we ate a lot of seafood growing up. And there ain't nothing I don't love about a pig. I was lucky also to grow up on an island in Australia for a time, where we fished, crabbed and I'd collect pipis, oysters and mussels at low tide after or before school. I was amazed to discover how expensive ox tail is here at market. I grew up eating ox tail soup which by all accounts was a poor-people food. Likewise the fancy-restaurant marrow-craze has been interesting to see. I understand, I love marrow and I grew up eating it and all parts of the beast -- although I haven't noticed Angelenos cottoning on to my mum's fish-eyeball fetish yet.

Papua New Guinea's proximity to Asia, bordering Indonesia meant a diet heavily influenced by all things Asian and bananas, mangoes, coconuts and taro. I recall finding it so painfully embarrassing in Australia when I was a teen, from an immigrant family, trying to fit in. Ours was the house cooking up the shrimp paste, the stink of which you could smell blocks away. I hated that we didn't have potato chips, but prawn chips instead and that our freezer contained no fish sticks or peas which I firmly believed would accelerate assimilation. I didn't realize until I left home how good we'd had it growing up on curry and stir-fries.

My husband, also Australian, actually grew up in Hong Kong, so we share a similar palate. We eat a lot of fish and pork and vegetables and a lot of spicy food. What I cook at home is pretty much influenced by what is available and in season. Here in California, many of the vegetables I have access to are non-tropical, with a broader European influence which has dictated that here, I cook much more non-Asian foods than what I am used to.

Julie: You worked for many years in the modeling industry. What was the tipping point that inspired your career change?

Vavine: I landed my first job as a model agent, sort of by accident. The very idea of it to begin with was the very antithesis of my character. But I needed a job and the first company I worked for was amazing - Chic Management in Sydney, Australia. I quickly became distracted by the fast pace, the new challenges, and the good pay. The shine wore off soon enough and the inertia and ennui set in. By the time I was 34, I realized that contrary to my optimistic, affable core nature, I'd become easily irritated, surly, and kind of mean. I found myself wanting to suffocate models in their own yoga mats every time one even looked at me, which is really not fair.

Julie: When did you meet James Birch and start working with Flora Bella Farm?

Vavine: The name "James Birch" had been on my radar since not long after I arrived in America, six years ago. As soon as I left the model agency, I showed up at the markets and volunteered my services to James. He's a wonderful human being who I have come to love. I'm sure that it may well be the nightmare of many, but after the vacuous, sedentary world I'd just come from, getting up at five in the morning and watching the sun rise over Santa Monica Bay, as I unload a truck full of the most beautiful produce, grown lovingly by such an expert hand, using my body and getting all sullied up, has been exactly what the doctor ordered. I love it with all my heart.

Julie: What have you learned at the farm and working at the farmers' market?

Vavine: While I am constantly learning things about growing, the learning curve has mostly been in what it has done for my cooking. I overheard my husband talking to a friend recently saying, "I mean, she always has been a great cook, but since she's been at the markets, her cooking is off the charts." I put 60% of that down to the incredible amount of amazing produce I get to bring home each week not only from Flora Bella, but from being part of the market community, which loads me up with all sorts of gifted things from chickens to eggs to flowers, and 40% to happiness. Not getting home totally stressed out and soul-destroyed at 9pm at night five days a week and knocking something together half-heartedly. I have actually reverted to my natural state of cheerfulness and seeing the beauty in all things again. I cook from a different place and it shows.

Julie: Why broccoli soup? Tell us about how you developed this recipe.

Vavine: Because it's in season and James grows the best broccoli in town! "Developed" seems like I did far more than I actually did with this super-basic, quick recipe. I make everything up as I go with whatever is on hand and that night, I had 2.5lbs of broccoli in the house. And I have great herbs on hand in my garden, which have grown like wildfire, I'm sure greatly in part to their origins, provided to me by the darling, Jimmy Williams of Hayground Organic Gardening in Silverlake. The key with this recipe though -like everything, really- is to use the most quality, organic produce you can get your hands on. Then, as always, it really doesn't need much.

Broccoli Soup
Serves 4
2.5lbs Broccoli - including stalks and leaves
Approx 12 Small fresh sage leaves
1 tsp Fresh thyme leaves
4 Whole, peeled garlic cloves
1 Large leek - the bottom, lighter-green half only, halved lengthways and rinsed
1 Teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
4 Cups low sodium chicken broth
1 Cup cream
1.5 Tablespoons butter
Sea salt
Fresh-cracked black pepper
Red chili flakes

Melt butter in a medium-sized, heavy-based pot over medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic, onions, sage, thyme and leek until the leek is softened (about 6-7 minutes). Add the Worcestershire and stir in. Add chicken broth and bring to the boil. Simmer the broccoli uncovered for about 15 minutes until it is tender. Add cream and salt and pepper to taste. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup and keep covered until serving. I like to garnish with some red chili flakes. Serve with toasted, rustic, crusty bread.

Flora Bella Farm is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. They can be found on Wednesdays at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market and Sundays at the Hollywood Farmers' Market.

[Photos by Ginger Feast]



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