Checking produce sources firsthand

During a recent meal, a dark thought visited Raphael Lunetta. “I was consuming something from far away, a place I’ve not seen, and I thought, ‘So how it is I can trust what I’m eating? How well can the (USDA) regulate what comes from another country?’”

As the chef-owner of JiRaffe in Santa Monica, Calif., Lunetta is blessed to have one of the nation’s premier farmers’ markets just blocks from his restaurant. Over the years he’s gotten to know many of the growers whose foods ultimately wind up at his restaurant’s back door.

But just because it’s farmed close by, does that make it safer than if it came from further away?

“Even when it comes from the farmer’s market, it’s hard to say how clean it is,” he begins. “And how do you know that any of the produce sold there is being treated with clean water? The whole issue we had last year with all the spinach problems should tell us something—that we have to be very careful.”

When JiRaffe was new (it opened in 1996), Lunetta visited the market personally to make contacts with farmers whose operations he eventually visited. Knowing firsthand his products were grown and cleaned safely gave him confidence in the products that came to the restaurant, and confidence now that his chef de cuisine handles those purchases.

But not complete confidence. Regardless of who it comes from, all his produce is washed at the restaurant before it’s served. A simple and basic step to be sure, but one Lunetta doubts is done everywhere.

“Think about it: We can’t trust our politicians and companies like Enron to manage our money, so who’s to say we can trust who’s washing our vegetables unless we’ve seen them do it?” he says. “If I find a caterpillar in the box of lettuce I’m washing, I’m OK, because I found it. I’d rather wash it myself than take just serve something that says on the package that it’s washed.”

Even though he calls the farms in Ventura and Oxnard counties from which he gets much of his produce “really well run,” taking the extra step of washing it at the restaurant is necessary for his peace of mind.

“Even at home I’ll not buy pre-washed lettuces and just put them in the bowl,” he says. “I have more confidence when we do it, even if that means I have to buy the whole head and clean it myself.”