February 24, 2012
The question felt mandatory.
I'd talked to several savvy restaurant playmakers along Dolores more than a few times about how easy it would be to launch a open-air market with a little entertainment, a little booth or two and a lot of flavor. We all agreed it would be big draw for strolling locals.
So when the Weekly Editorial Board had the candidates for Carmel mayor, City Councilman Jason Burnett (above right) and restaurateur Rich Pepe (left), in for a chitchat this week, I couldn't help but ask, What am I missing? While they're invoking terms like "walkability" (Burnett) and concepts like "bringing the downtown back downtown" (Pepe) repeatedly, and shareholders and participants alike are on board for a fair or farmers market or whatever you want to call it, why isn't it happening?
Their replies gave me hope.
"It's one of my priorities," Burnett said. "It excites me and the community at large, having a regular event on, say, a Thursday afternoon. It would take advantage of the pedestrian nature of town, allow restaurants to expand onto street, have some live music or a silent movie—some activity [where] the larger community has a reason to come…It really needs to be a partnership between the business and the city. The city can provide ability to close off street, police assistance…"
Then it was Pepe's turn.
"On surface, why not?" he asked. "But down deep, in Carmel, it's tough to change a light bulb, let alone put on a street fair. Jason and I agree on this. We want a walkable city with interesting things to do. Just like kitchen is the center of the home, downtown is the center of community life. The challenge we face: We need a strong leader, a strong ambassador, to [counter] the vocal minority who is against everything. If you win, Jason, I hope you follow through. If I win, I hope I follow through. It's so important to keep pace with cities and towns up and down the coast."
That conversation comes in the context of a race that's about as foodie-fied as any I've seen. Pepe, after all, is one of the most influential restaurant owners in the area, with a buffet of largely lively eateries like Little Napoli (626-PEPE), Vino Napoli Wine Bar (626-7373), Peppoli (647-7433), Vesuvio (626-7373) and Carmel Bakery (626-7373) in his portfolio. But Burnett is making a push to brand Carmel as more of a food town too.
A few hours after our powwow at the Weekly, Burnett hosted a campaign event at slow-food darling Carmel Belle with pioneering conscious food journalist Eric Schlosser. Here's Carmel beat reporter Sara Rubin's report from the event:
About 100 people, including Carmel-area dignitaries attended, including Merv Sutton, Councilman Ken Talmage, Planning Commissioner/council candidate Victoria Beach, Greg D'Ambrosio, Salinas City Councilman Steve McShane, Weekly contributor Jamie Collins (described by Schlosser as "one of the coolest farmers in the U.S."), Mark Shelley and otter documentary distributor Mark Urman from New York.
Burnett's wife Mel and baby Sebastian left early for Sebastian's 6pm bedtime. Jason's mom, Nancy, was there, too. Jason gave dried apricots from his grandfather's orchard to Schlosser and Carmel Belle owners Jay and Chloe Dolata, and Nancy whispered, "They're not organic."
Jason pulled a Barack Obama, and opened by talking about growing lettuce, arugula, and kale on his small rooftop garden.
"I think Carmel is really uniquely positioned to embrace the food movement, in particular the local food movement," he said.
When asked by an audience member for a concrete step toward developing a food culture, Burnett talked about the exact idea you asked about: open-air food gigs, blocking off different streets and having restaurant seating out in the street, bringing residents into town for meals.
"It encourages the sort of mingling that really helps build a community," he said.
Schlosser's lived in the town nine years, was dressed casually (as usual); jeans, striped button-down, worn jacket with a hem coming undone.
He said the city has done a remarkable job maintaining its character unlike other Western towns that have "a lack of vision and a lack of a long-term view of how to respect and preserve a place." His little stump speech for Jason as mayor was that he's about intelligent growth.
"He is not a luddite," Schlosser said. "He is not about preventing growth."
Food, he suggested, is the next soulful endeavor for Carmel to get behind: "Sadly, this is not a writer/artist community anymore. But Monterey County produces $4 billion of food a year....Right now, there isn't that strong a food culture here."
He talked a bit about Napa overselling itself, and how Monterey County is better because we grow healthy food for people to eat, not alcohol.
The food: pulled pork sandwiches on decadently buttery sweet rolls; mini open-face tuna melts with hook-and-line-caught tuna from Dave's in Santa Cruz and tomato slices from Nagamine Farms in Watsonville; goat cheese crostini, topped with slices of Nagamine tomato; and as more of a dessert item, baguette with slices of apple, East of Edam Schoch cheese, and a candied walnut.