The Westside’s Venus Spirits is among the first distillers in the Golden State to use only California-grown agave, part of a move to drought-resistant agriculture, while chef Jessica Yarr is honoring her Ukrainian heritage with a series of events.
At the forefront of many of our minds are the people of Ukraine. This week, one local chef is mobilizing her business to fundraise for them. San Lorenzo Valley native Jessica Yarr is half Ukrainian, and channels her heritage and culinary skills into a beautiful, seasonally rotating menu of Eastern European dishes for her pop-up, Chicken Foot. She is planning a series of fundraising events throughout the summer, and the first one is this weekend.
On the Westside, distiller Sean Venus is releasing an agave spirit made entirely of California-grown agave and produced using traditional pit-roasting techniques. This is the first time such a spirit has been released, and marks a transition in California to growing drought-resistant plants like agave.
Read on to find out more …
Next week, look for Sean Venus’ release of his first agave spirit made from California-grown agave and produced using traditional pit-roasting techniques. Venus Spirits is among the first distillers in California to use only California-grown agave and the very first, Venus says, to release a spirit made using traditional roasting methods. After harvesting the six- to seven-year-old plants, he roasted the piñas over almond wood in traditional earthen hornos, in-ground ovens, for seven days before unearthing the smoky, softened agaves and juiced, fermented and distilled them in Santa Cruz.
To make the spirit, Venus collaborated with agave grower Craig Reynolds of Yolo County-based California Agave Ventures and Muller Ranch.
“There is a growing movement to plant agave in California, which offers a unique opportunity for farmers to transition to drought-resistant agriculture,” says Venus.
Agave spirits are native to the region of Tequila in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, but only spirits produced there may use that protected name. Venus Spirits produces other agave spirits in its El Ladrón series using agave juice imported from Mexico. Access to the more local raw materials “gives us the ability to produce in a more traditional manner,” says Venus, while supporting a new movement for drought-tolerant agriculture. “The process of roasting in a pit gives it a unique character and flavor that’s hard to replicate.”
Venus has produced only 450 bottles, and they will retail for $90 per 750-milliliter bottle. You can preorder starting next Thursday. On Saturday, March 12, visit Venus Spirits’ tasting room on the Westside for a release party featuring live music, food by El Rey León and salsa dancing performances. More information at venusspirits.com.
Chef Jessica Yarr, recognizing her family’s roots, is doing what she can to support Ukranians in this time of war. For her first fundraiser this Saturday, she’s offering two special Ukrainian dishes for pickup (read on for details). Future fundraising efforts will include an exciting collaboration with baker Jennifer Latham, formerly of San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery, this spring.
I first met Jessica in 2016, when I interviewed her for a story on young, up-and-coming chefs in Santa Cruz County. At 32, she had already spent time cooking at Gabriella Café and Theo’s, and had recently become the head chef at downtown fine-dining restaurant Assembly. At the time, Yarr made a splash with her inventive menu. One item in particular was making waves. Included with Yarr’s dish of fried chicken wings was another poultry part rarely seen on Western menus: chicken feet. Commonly eaten in many Asian countries, Yarr’s intention was to spark a conversation around sustainability by showing that every part of the animal is precious. Yarr says there were many interesting reactions, and while the feet were eventually removed from the dish, the experience stuck in her mind.
In 2020, Yarr’s grandmothers, both of whom had an impact on her culinary path, passed away.
Her paternal grandmother, Shirley, who was British Canadian, took her out to dine all around New York City as a child, and it was there Yarr had her first knish. Her maternal grandmother, Olga, was a first generation American Ukrainian (her mother, Tekla, immigrated from Ukraine while pregnant with Olga) , and when her family celebrated the end of her life after 103 years, Yarr reconnected with her Ukrainian relations over traditional dishes like pierogi. It inspired her to discover other Eastern European dishes.
These experiences drove Yarr’s current endeavor, Chicken Foot, a pop-up restaurant she founded in December 2020. Chicken Foot focuses on Eastern European foods with a plant-forward, California twist, a new concept for Santa Cruz County, which has no other East European restaurants to speak of. Yet Yarr believes that the cuisine’s traditional focus on hearty vegetables and fresh cheese makes a perfect canvas for plant-forward cuisine, which “removes meat from the center of the plate and makes vegetables the star.”
These passions blend together to create dishes that are at once fresh, comforting and visually stunning. Yarr’s seasonally changing menu is a beautiful celebration of her heritage and life experiences, and a feast for the senses. Fist-sized fried knish dumplings stuffed with potato and sauerkraut served with whole-grain mustard and spicy mustard greens; dark, earthy walnut bread topped with fuchsia beet slices, fresh goat cheese and bright, tangy kumquats; and warm brioche donut balls with a generous dollop of burnt honey whipped cream. A standout dish: the pierogi. At a recent pop-up at the Westside farmers market, the potato-leek dumplings were filled with fresh cheese and topped with a salad of sweet sugar snap peas and dill, and served with sour cream and tkemali, a sour plum jam.
Last week, after watching the invasion of Ukraine, Yarr felt inspired to help. This weekend, she is holding the first of what she says will be a series of fundraising events for relief efforts in Ukraine. For $25, one can choose either borscht or shchavel soup (a sorrel potato soup made with chicken bone broth), both served with pompuski, aka Ukrainian garlic bread. The proceeds will be donated to Sunflower of Peace Foundation, a relief nonprofit. Preorder by Friday for pickup on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Scotts Valley.
In April, Yarr will collaborate with Jennifer Latham, cookbook author and former director of bread at the acclaimed Tartine bakery in San Francisco, on a fundraiser for Ukraine. The details haven’t been firmed up, so sign up for Chicken Foot’s newsletter at chickenfootsc.com for more information when it’s available. And later this year, Yarr will helm two Outstanding in the Field dinners, although locations and dates have yet to be released.
“I’ve always been really proud of my Ukrainian heritage, and I’ve always dropped little nods to the heritage within my menus over the years. It’s just I’ve never gone full force with it,” says Yarr. Since Chicken Foot launched, Yarr has made connections with other Ukrainians, and plans to cater a Ukrainian wedding later this year. Now that some of the couple’s family members will be unable to attend, the event and food carries a special significance. “I just feel so honored to be a part of that for someone and at this time.”
On Sunday, celebrate the height of the citrus season with a lemon-themed culinary class at Thomas Farm on Pleasant Valley Road in Aptos. Penny Cotter and Penny Ellis of Urban Farm Girls will teach guests how to make preserved lemons, lemon marmalade and three techniques for making limoncello, the Italian lemon liqueur, followed by a vegetarian lunch. Attendees are welcome to bring their own wine, and are invited to pick their own organically grown eureka and Meyer lemons for $1 per pound after the class. Tickets are $60 per person or $100 per couple. Purchase through Eventbrite.
Alderwood restaurant and Teen Kitchen Project are teaming up to raise funds for the nonprofit, which provides culinary education to teenagers as they prepare meals for their Santa Cruz County neighbors experiencing critical and chronic illness. Chef Jeffrey Wall and the team at Alderwood will provide mentorship as together they prepare a five-course tasting menu and wine pairing. Only 40 tickets are available for the event on Tuesday, March 29, so grab yours now on ExploreTock.com.