These are the last of the season's heirloom tomatoes from Robert Coughlin's garden.
These are the last of the season's heirloom tomatoes from Robert Coughlin's garden. - 

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: Who needs a big produce-delivery truck, or even a trip to the local farmer's market? These days, some restaurants grow their own fresh and natural produce. You might see the chef picking the basil for that night's pesto. But here's the seed of a new idea from a restaurant in Los Angeles: Have customers grow the food. This place takes tangerines, peppers or potatoes from backyard gardens, and puts them on the menu.

Marketplace's Eve Troeh has the story.


Eve Troeh: Home gardeners love to share their yield. Robert Coughlin is no exception. His 14-square foot plot is just dirt right now -- it's resting. But this spring it was full of lettuce.

Robert Coughlin: Red oak leaf and curly leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce and two kinds of arugula that I grew.

He delivered weekly to everyone he knew.

Coughlin: My friends were like "Enough Robert!"

Coughlin took the teasing in stride until he saw his lettuce going to waste.

Coughlin: I opened a fridge and saw that the last week's supply was uneaten.

A friend told him about Forage, a trendy new restaurant less than a mile from Coughlin's home in the Silver Lake neighborhood. The chef there would take produce from local gardeners, but the veggies had to audition.

Coughlin: I was a little intimidated. He was breaking the leaves and smelling them and tasting them, and really looking to see if they were something he could benefit from.

Forage's chef Jason Kim took every leaf.

Jason Kim: That night we took his lettuces and we created Robert's Coronado Street Salad.

So Robert brought more lettuce, and Kim would often serve it still warm from the sun. Kim used to work in high-end restaurants that charged a lot for specialty produce like this. He wanted to serve fresh food at cheaper prices. That's why he started Forage. But he says his first thought about using amateur growers was "no thanks."

Kim: Some old lady with a bag of lemons coming in and being like, "Give me money for these lemons!"

But, he tried. And to Kim's surprise dozens of hip, urban farmers came out of the woodwork. They didn't even want money. Like Robert Coughlin, they just didn't want to waste what they grew. Coughlin says Kim made him a deal.

Coughlin: He said maybe we could do food credits on a card. And I said, "OK, cool," 'cause I figured I could bring friends there and take them to lunch on the food card.

And he did.

Kim: Robert was pointing to the salad and telling all his friends, "That's my lettuce!"

Chef Kim pays most local growers with credit. They've supplied up to 35 percent of produce served at Forage. And the unique things they grow give the restaurant a leg up on the competition.

Kim: This really rare stuff that actually nobody else in LA gets.

Like a pile of striped white and purple orbs from one grower.

Kim: These are Italian heirloom eggplants. Never even seen these until he brought 'em.

Kim might roast them with garlic to put on crostini. But city regulators raised their eyebrows at the program, and cracked down on Forage earlier this year. How did Kim really knew where the produce came from?, they asked. And who was accountable if someone got sick?

Kim: They said that we are not allowed to take in stuff from unapproved sources.

It took Kim months just to figure out what that meant. He helped some of his best growers get certified -- through the same process used for farmers markets. Robert Coughlin shows off his state certificate.

Coughlin: Yellowneck squash, zucchini...

It lists what he can grow, including each kind of tomato.

Coughlin: Japanese Black Truffle, Black Inca tomato, pineapple tomatoes, and then a red beefsteak, yellow beefsteak...

Now more Forage growers want to get certified. Recently, students from a local elementary school came by to show Chef Kim a green squash they grew. It has a very long, thin neck. No one had ever seen anything like it. Kim couldn't serve it, but he still found a way to use it -- as decoration for the Forage display case.

In Los Angeles, I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

Follow Eve Troeh at @evetroeh