On an overcast Sunday morning, Carl Tassi holds a bugle up to his lips and plays a few loud toots to signal the beginning of the market day at the long-running Hollywood Farmers’ Market. He then walks down Ivar Avenue to play drums with his trio. Their melodies fill the morning with Take Five and other jazz standards. Nearby, Phill Kim and Kevin Hickin of Collage Coffee set up their espresso cart at the corner of Ivar and Selma ready to make some much-needed coffee for market customers and workers. It is early in the morning, but the farmers have been up earlier — even before dawn, packing their trucks, driving to L.A. and preparing for a busy Hollywood Farmers’ Market day. Some have traveled from as far as Fresno.
Founded in 1991, the Hollywood Farmers’ Market started as a way to improve the quality of life in Hollywood for residents and businesses alike. At the time, farmers markets were a new concept in the city, only about ten existed. On that first day, May 1, 1991, farmers set up their stands wondering if the shoppers would come. Vicki Bernard of Bernard Ranches was one of those intrepid farmers. She stood behind a table filled with vibrant citrus fruit, waiting to see if her gamble would pay off. More than a quarter-century later, you find can still find her there every Sunday, surrounded by the cheerful bustle that’s the Hollywood Farmers’ Market.
Opening a farmers market in the heart of Hollywood at a time when there were few markets in Southern California was a gutsy move. Along with Bernard Ranches, Beylik Family Farms, Flora Bella Farms, Kenter Canyon Farms, McGrath Family Farms, Tamai Farms, Tenerelli Farms, Tutti Frutti Farms, and Weiser Family Farms are among the list of legacy farmers who have been part of the Hollywood market since the beginning.
Today the market has grown to more than 160 vendors of produce, prepared foods, meats, and seafood. This colorful bustling community reflects the diversity of the culinary offerings in Southern California. This market, as well as markets in Atwater Village, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw, Central Avenue and Watts is run by non-profit SEE-LA.
Remembering the beginning
Food writer and former Food Editor of the Los Angeles Times, Russ Parsons, shopped at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market on day one. “I was actually at the very first market. I remember it was raining,” says Parsons. “At that time the Southern California farmers market scene was very different. There weren’t farmers markets everywhere the way there is now.”
“I remember walking down that street and looking at it and thinking, this is something that is so different from what that neighborhood is thought of,” Parsons says. He remembers thinking how ironic it was to have a market selling fresh fruit and vegetables in a neighborhood that was associated more with nightclubs and crime than with health and nutrition.
Though Parsons still believes that the Wednesday Santa Monica market continues to be a hub for chefs to source, shop and connect with other chefs, he acknowledges that a significant number of restaurants have opened east of Fairfax. The Sunday market has developed its own allure. “The thing about Hollywood since it opened is that it is a good representation about how the culinary world in Southern California has spread. The Hollywood Market has become the hub for that eastward spread of good restaurants,” he says.
Now chefs can be found walking the streets of Hollywood on Sundays shopping for their restaurants or enjoying time with family and friends. Each week market goers might see Jon Shook or Vinny Dotolo shopping with their families, Diep Tran sourcing ingredients for Good Girl Dinette, and the teams from Sqirl, Gjelina and Mozza gathering up orders along with Food Network personalities, journalists and culinary community celebrities.
Managing the growing market
To make all of this happen on Sunday mornings in Hollywood, market managers Elizabeth Bowman and Ariell Llunga have long to do lists to tackle. Elizabeth Bowman arrives at 6 a.m., straps on her fanny pack and gets ready for whatever the day has in store for her supervising 75 to 100 farm produce stands.
“Most farmers have been here long before me and will be here long after me. When I do get the rare opportunity to bring in a new farmer, I prioritize vendors who can bring something underrepresented to the market,” says Bowman. “The market has been around for 26 years now, customers and vendors alike feel a real sense of attachment to the market. We know that decisions made today have a lasting impact.”
Manager Ariell Llunga runs the Community events section of the market including hot and prepackaged food as well as the artisans. The center of the market has become a weekly hub for chefs, cookbook authors and promoting fundraisers like Taste of the Nation, Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Bake & Gather. “Elizabeth and I brainstorm frequently on how to activate the center of our market. In the last year, we’ve hosted authors like Bill Esparza and Elina Fuhrman for book signings, held chef demos and food workshops and of course ever popular ‘Peak of Season’ festivals,” says Llunga. The recent Tomato Festival offered market-goers the chance to taste dozens of varieties of tomatoes while watching chef demonstrations.
Llunga adds, “In terms of our hot food; whether you’re a loyal shopper or in from out of town, we want you to get a taste of the best and brightest Los Angeles has to offer. It’s important to us to maintain a diverse mix with everything from tamales to falafel or a farm to fork meal.”
Eating at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market today
Prepared foods at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market range from Sudanese falafel at Ihsan’s to warm coconut Kanom Krok from Sri Windsor Café. Andy Kadin bring his wildly popular Bub and Grandma’s bread which lately has been selling out so fast they have to bring the second round of inventory at 10:30am. Nearby Oscar Ochoa of El Machete sells his small-batch salsas and chili sauces.
Lauda Flores founded Sno Con Amor and artisanal snow cone company that serves fluffy shaved ice with handcrafted syrups. She fondly remembers, as a child living in Mexico City, the day her father retuned from a trip to the US with a special toy for her, a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine. When she was six years old they moved to Huntington Park and her parents opened Los Alpes Paleteria selling snow cones, fruit bars, and homemade ice cream.
After many years of working in the entertainment industry, Flores planned to open a snow cone stand for one summer. “I wanted to do something within my community and Hollywood Farmers Market was my market. Raspados is the Mexican version shaved ice. The only difference is I am making everything homemade and natural. A lot of our customers are kids, who have never had a snow cone before. Their parents are health conscious and never let them have one with artificial sugar syrups.” Flores’ concept proved to be popular enough to long outlive the original one-summer plan. In addition to Sundays Sno Con Amor has become popular at festivals and events.
An abundance of produce represents cuisines from around the world
While the prepared foods dominate the section of the market on Selma, the produce stands line Ivar Avenue from Sunset all the way up to Hollywood Boulevard. There in addition to apples, carrots and potatoes, market-goers are treated to the bounty of California crops. While walking the market on Sunday mornings, one can see stands selling nopales across from another that has tiny bunches of shiso leaves. Bitter melons, dragon fruit, puntarelle and kohlrabi can be found when in season.
Kong Thao of Thao Family Farm offers a variety of the Southeast Asian produce their family grew when they lived in Laos. Now in addition to many home cook customers on Sunday mornings, more and more restaurants count on him for ingredients and often guidance.
“A lot of the Italian chefs buy Japanese eggplants,” explains Thao. “This morning Max from Gjelina was looking for Japanese eggplant for their Japanese restaurant, but we have Italian eggplant today. So he got Italian eggplant. Then the Italian restaurants want the Japanese eggplant. It kind of works out that way.”
“We grow a lot of varieties,” adds Thao. “Because not everything is perfect all of the time. Whatever is good that day, we are gong to pick more of that.” Thao likes the fact that his customers, both restaurants and home cooks have become comfortable and flexible about the produce they buy. He appreciated the interaction when he offers an alternative from that week’s harvest and gets positive feedback.
Thao experiments with new plantings every year. “I have been working on galangal and turmeric for the last two or three years,” he says. “We have gotten to the point that the ginger is really good now. The galangal is getting there. The turmeric is really hit and miss. In the Central Valley, it is a very short growing season before the frost hit in November.” Some chefs bring Thao seeds and plants from their travels around the world.
Walking north on Ivar, the bright ladybug banners at The Garden Of make it an easy farm stand to find. This farm in Los Olivos, run by farmers Shu and Debby Takikawa, has become known for their colorful produce specializing in a variety of lettuces as well as a rotating selection of vegetables including multiple varieties of squash, carrots and cucumbers.
Shu Takikawa was born in Hokkaido, Japan. He often grows items that are staples in the Japanese diet. “The funny thing is that when I have certain produce like Japanese cucumbers and kabocha, the Japanese customers show up,” says Takikawa. “When I have sweet potatoes. They show up. I think it is word of mouth in the community.”
Takikawa appreciates that his customers at the Hollywood Market are a diverse group of people who are open to trying new foods. “They are adventurous. They see unusual produce and like to impress their friends,” he says. Takikawa and his staff are often asked for cooking advice, like how to prepare puntarelle. They recommend soaking out the bitterness before making a dressing with oil, vinegar, and anchovy. They often hear the customers sharing recipe ideas with each other.
For Japanese ingredients, shoppers should keep an eye on the rotating offerings at The Garden Of. “As I get older I like to eat more of the food I grew up with,” explains Takikawa. He recently offered a new crop of fresh shishito peppers.
Shopping alongside chefs
Every week chefs can be spotted shopping at the Thao Family Farm stand or picking up their order from Takikawa at The Garden Of. Chef Diep Tran is always there pushing a giant dolly of crates to gather up orders for her restaurant, Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park.
At Good Girl Dinette, lettuce from The Garden Of is featured in the Imperial Rolls and rice noodle salads. Tran also buys hot mint, rau ram, tomatoes, and green cherry tomatoes for pickling from Thao. She can also often be spotted at KNK Ranch picking up stone fruit for her market sodas and pies.
Tran has watched the Hollywood Farmers’ Market grow for many years. “I have been going to the market since 1999 when I was still working at a non-profit,” says Tran. “I was drawn to the Hollywood Market due to the goals of SEE-LA, which is economic development. That was for me an economic justice decision. And I tasted the first great tomato I ever had there.”
Tran keeps an updated chalkboard list of farm ingredients on the menu in the dining room at Good Girl Dinette. “I am not just searching for Vietnamese ingredients, I am just searching for an ingredient that can stand on its own and I can feature that,” says Tran.
“The meats don't change, but the vegetarian offerings at Good Girl Dinette change a lot,” explains Tran. “That keeps me on my toes. Good Girl Dinette has been here for over eight years. How many vegetarian banh mis can I come up with? Actually quite a lot. I was vegetarian for a long time I have suffered through just fries and tofu. I wanted to have the vegans and vegetarians who come here and feel loved. Not like an afterthought. The farmers market produce makes it really easy.”
Heritage and history lead to the future of the culinary landscape
Tracing the path of produce from farms all over the state to the market and into the kitchens of homes and restaurants tell the story of the diversity of culinary story in California. The Hollywood Farmers Market is a good example of how the community in Los Angeles keeps preserves tradition while growing and changing.
The Hollywood Farmers’ Market is open every Sunday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. rain or shine.