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featuring:

Jonathan Rollo + Kristi Ritchey

from:
Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop
recipe:
BLT thin-crust pizza w/ avocado pesto

Right on Orange, right on 17th and we arrive at 234. It’s 6:10am and dark, real dark, but the lights are on inside Greenleaf. We grab gear, walk in, and say morning, greeted by smiles + excitement.

As the sun starts to color the sky we unpack and I look around for my first snaps of the day. So much to choose from… old tins, colorful signage, interesting lamps dangling around you. Click click. The windows give an open and airy feel. Plant life everywhere. It’s peaceful. Click click.

We head to the garden on the side that yields some of the crops for our upcoming dishes. Very cool. Hey Bob, we’re ready to cook! I hum, We’re off to see the kitchen…

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How important is farm fresh? Jonathan: It’s absolutely everything. It allows for higher nutrient content, it allows us to know our farmers and know exactly what we’re getting. There’s just no way to do that if you’re buying in bulk from mega farms in the middle of America where stuff gets prematurely picked and ripened in transit to some big warehouse in downtown L.A. where it gets boxed up and cryo bagged and frozen.
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What’s the story behind the design elements of Greenleaf? Jonathan: When we opened our original store, the idea was an urban farm stand. Something that allowed us to showcase the freshness of the ingredients and allow our customers to see exactly what they were getting. The general aesthetic is to feel like you’re walking into a Napa or Sonoma Valley farm stand or you’re at a nice indoor/outdoor space in Santa Barbara. Worn-in, warm, comfortable.
I’ve always tried to be as ecofriendly as possible on our build-outs, so all the wood elements in here came from other construction projects. The riddling racks were all salvaged from a dump. You think of all these things filling up a landfill and it’s horrible. So part of our whole ‘green is good’ mantra is how to minimize the effect that we have on the environment when doing a build-out, because it can be so disastrous filling dumpster after dumpster with debris that has to go… somewhere.
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Do you think the phrase ‘farm to table’ is overused? Kristi: People take in new fads and unfortunately, just like any phrase that gets overused, the meaning behind it sometimes gets dropped—but it’s something we live by day to day When the fad’s gone, when people forget the phrase and there’s a new one in six months, we’ll still be doing it because we know that’s the best quality product we can get.
Jonathan: ‘Farm to fork.’
K: It’s crazy. Food is just like clothes. You’ve got your fads, the newest trends. Farm to table, however you want to say it, getting that best quality product from the local guy you trust, that’s what we’re about and that’s what we do. Whether it’s cool or not.
J: And if you think about it, this is how food was done before industrialization was able to package and shelf things. I’m not saying we should go back to basics 100%, but methods swing in extremes and then people realize ‘Oh, maybe it’s not really the best thing for us,’ so they moderate it a little bit.
We do Saturday morning kids’ classes here just to educate them on the garden; they can pot their own plant and grow something themselves. You always hear people say ‘Oh my God, that’s how you grow a tomato?’ People don’t realize apples come from trees and pumpkins grow on a vine. It’s unfathomable how removed we are from the actual process as a society. And I’m not blaming anyone, it’s understandable but at the same time I’m shocked when kids see something fresh for the first time, literally watch it walk from garden to kitchen to their plate. They don’t understand that the grocery store does not produce their lettuce. That slab of beef actually came from a cow. It’s amazing how the steps get skipped so it’s important to us to practice what we preach, everything we do is about spreading that message.
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Where did the name Greenleaf come from? Jonathan: I wanted something that really painted a picture of everything that we do, focused on the food, and then obviously extending into our perspective on being as ecofriendly and healthy as possible. You should have seen, my dining room was covered floor to ceiling with papers with just one word on it. Is that the one? Is that the one? Literally just the entire room. When you name something you kind of come up with what the rules are for it. I wanted a 2-syllable word that had a strong consonant and was a visual for what we are. There were hundreds of words fell into that category, but this was it.
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What are your priorities in life?Jonathan: The whole reason that Greenleaf was started was because my priorities shifted. I thought that the priorities were to have a great job and do something that pays you a lot of money and then everything else would fall in line, and very quickly I learned that if those are your goals, everything else kind of gets pushed to the side. So I left my big fancy corporate job and went to culinary school. I wanted to do something I was really, really proud of and whether I made a lot of money or not, was something that I could explain to my kids or my grandkids. I wanted to at least give my heart a shot in dictating my life. The minute I opened myself up to that, everything else kind of redirected. Once I had been in the cooking world and working for restaurants for a little while, I could take what I loved doing and turn it into a business. Now the priorities are creating a healthy environment not only for our customers, but also our employees. Our whole team of people, I mean now we have…
Kristi: 120?
J: 140?
K: Yeah.
J: …people working for us so it’s a full time job just making sure our employees are taken care of and making sure that everyone feels like they’re a part of this team. That’s the priority now.
K: And for me they shifted because I was working nights in fine dining and I was so intent on building this career that I left everything else behind. My family, my friends, I did nothing but work. I had no balance in my life and I also had very poor eating habits. Being part of Greenleaf allowed me to find a balance. Now I have time with my family plus an amazing family in each one of these restaurants.
We work hard, but at the end of the day we can go home and have a life outside these walls, which so many chefs give up. A lot of people make that quote unquote sacrifice. They sacrifice their personal life for their career. I’ve been fortunate enough to do both with Greenleaf and that’s been a great thing for me.
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What’s your kitchen soundtrack? Jonathan: We let our guys choose the music in the mornings so it’ll swing from ranchera to banda to hardcore heavy death metal Mexican rock. It’s a mix between Mexican wrestling and a mosh pit.
Kristi: Everything has a nice beat to it, though. We tell the guys they can play whatever they want—but it’s got to have a beat. It’s got to give them energy, it’s got to motivate. I always joke that I’m going to turn Rocky on before a big day, and every so often it actually comes on.
J: We actually put speakers in the kitchen here just for that reason. You always walk into a kitchen and there’s a little radio plugged in, the kind with tin foil on the antenna extending up into the roof. So we put real speakers in here.
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What chef tool could you not live without? Kristi: My one would be my chef knife.
Jonathan: I was going to say that.
K: I use it for everything. Spatula, chopping, I mean, anything and everything.
J: What are you going to say, a piece of machinery? No, that knife is really an extension of your hand. I could go into any kitchen and as long as I have a good knife, things will be okay.
We get answers across the board… peelers, spatulas— K: But the knife can do all those things. You can turn a knife into a peeler, trust me I’ve done it. A nail file even turns into a nice peeler in a pinch.
J: We’re lucky that Kristi stopped talking so much with her hands because that knife gets really animated…[Everyone laughs]
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Do you have to have a passion to cook professionally? Jonathan: This is absolutely a profession of passion, I would never advise anyone to become a cook. I think people have this glamorous idea of what we do, when in reality it’s usually eight to 10 hours of very laborious, very tedious, very monotonous preparation, and then 4, 5, or six hours of just intense, overwhelming, fire-in-your-face kind of work. Then you go home, sleep for five or six hours and do it all again the next day. Year after year after year. The only people who succeed in this business are ones who can’t do anything else because they don’t know how to express themselves in ways other than through their manual labor.
One thing I’ve had to learn over time is how to take the passion I have for cooking, the passion that I have for food and for the restaurant and put it onto a different scale as my role has changed. Constantly embedding that passion in other people is important, making sure they have a similar love for what they do. Otherwise this job is a short one.
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Explain why ‘eating healthy is a life style, not a diet’ Jonathan: We don’t prescribe to any one particular regiment. If you kind of combine all the healthy diets out there, not the crash diets or the extreme diets, you get a general philosophy of balance; of eating whole foods, high-nutrient foods, not stuffing yourself on empty calories but having clean, lean proteins, having a lot of produce fruits and vegetables, eating whole nuts and whole grains. We’ll provide the options and you get to make the choice. That’s why the choices range from the super lean and healthy to the more decadent. We say our carrot cake is good for your soul, not necessarily your hips, but it’s there to thank yourself for doing well during the week.
It’s important for us not to focus on a fad or try and steer our clientele into a specific direction. What we believe in is long term health.
Kristi: So many people yo-yo because of that. That’s what I did. I tried every diet plan out there and it was Jonathan and Greenleaf that helped me lose my weight, 110 pounds. We’ve been working together five years now and I’ve maintained the weight loss because this idea, this plan has allowed me to do it.
I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, six days a week in Greenleaf and that’s allowed me to have variety. Diets don’t allow you to do that. After a diet, all of a sudden you have to learn to eat again.
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What recipe are you most proud of creating or reinventing? Kristi: Growing up as a kid, as “the big kid,” burgers and fries were my go-to all the time. Even when I was in culinary school I was at Burger King three times a day. Horrible eating habits. So for me, having a turkey burger and baked sweet potato fries that I could eat every day if I wanted to now—because of the calorie count and because I’m a huge runner—that’s one of my favorite dishes. Almost everyone loves a burger and fries. To be able to offer that on a healthier note was a great accomplishment for us on the menu. It shows our customers that you don’t have to come in and have just a salad or just chicken and veggies.
Jonathan: When we first opened we were just doing salads. It was great and I was grateful for the automatic popularity of the menu, but one of the biggest things we heard was, ‘I’d come back more often, but all you guys have is salads.’ So we spent a lot of time developing. The turkey burger was one of those things where Kristi went at it over and over again, three different versions every day. So finally we settled on a good patty and then, ‘Okay what do we combine it with?’ It’s a continuous work in progress until, ‘OK, I think that’ll work.’ We test it out and bam—just takes off. Now we have guys and gals that come five days a week, sometimes two or three times a day if they’re in the area. I think that’s the ultimate compliment.
I’m most proud of the basics that have been on the menu for four years and are still our top sellers. The Antioxidant and the Lemongrass Chicken Salad are just killer. I didn’t want to do a Chinese chicken salad like everyone is doing, and originally we had the menu separated into the ‘obvious’ salads and the ‘not so obvious’ salads; what you’d expect in a salad shop and what you don’t necessarily expect. There’s a lot of copycat versions out there and people call me saying, ‘I’m sorry I thought this was Greenleaf but err, it wasn’t.’
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When did you know that food had power? Jonathan: Some of my first memories are of meal time. Whether it’s a holiday or just family dinner, I think it’s always been something that steered my consciousness, knowing the importance of having that quality time with the people around you. Even in college, dorm life is all about microwaveable food, but it was the first time I started throwing my own dinner parties because it was so important for me to bring friends together and have that opportunity for discussions and not just, ‘crack another beer dude.’
[Laughing] So you were cooking before the corporate jobs & culinary school? Jonathan: Yeah. I cooked the whole way through. My summer jobs in high school were at catering companies or family friends’ restaurants. I’ve always had a passion for it and dabbled here and there. My mom’s a great, great cook so we always spent a lot of time in the kitchen. It’s something I’ve always held onto.
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What is the most difficult challenge of having two head chefs? Jonathan: The hardest part originally was being able to trust each other, to know that if I said ‘I got this,’ she’d be okay with my result and vice versa. And making sure that your ego is out of the game. There’s no way that we could do what we’re doing with just one of us, so to be able to continuously pass the baton back and forth is essential. Consequently it can’t get personal, it can’t be ego-driven, it can’t get emotional because then it’s just not worth it.
I really think we need three or four new menu items after talking to customers and getting feedback and we’ll do it. It’s a very democratic process. We come up with our individuals and then whatever’s mutual gets a thumbs up.
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Truffle & grilled vegetable

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BLT thin-crust w/ avocado pesto’ (Recipe below)

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Wild mushroom

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How does your passion for cooking fit into Greenleaf’s way of thinking? Kristi: Everybody loves great food right? Well Greenleaf is all about a healthy balance and lifestyle, so how do we make food that tastes kickass, but without the extra calories or extra fat? That’s the biggest challenge I’ve had as a chef. I’m pushed every day to do that. Healthy food doesn’t have to taste bland and we prove that every day.
Jonathan: A huge component of the job is research and development. We can be so close to having something just right and yet never get there. You need to have that passion for excellence and love of the food to be able to say, ‘You know what? Not good enough. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to put it out there.’ We work and work until it’s right, until it’s something that we’re proud of.
Everything that goes out is something we’d be proud to serve our families, our friends. Now that we have multiple locations I don’t necessarily know when family’s going to come in, when my friends are going to come in, and yet I have to know that we’re serving food they’ll be proud of.
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the recipe:

BLT thin-crust pizza

  • 1/3 c. grilled turkey bacon, chopped
  • 1 large fresh roma tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 3/4 c. fresh romaine lettuce, shredded
  • 1 oz. parmesan cheese
  • 3 oz. avocado pesto spread (see recipe)
  • 1 10-in. whole wheat tortilla (lower cal, trans fat-free)
  1. Spread avocado pesto on tortilla
  2. Layer tomato slices and turkey bacon on top
  3. Grill or bake in oven at 475°F until tomatoes are golden brown in places and the edges of the tortilla are browned
  4. Top with lettuce and serve immediately.

Avocado pesto

  • 5 ripe avocados
  • 1/2 tbsp. fresh garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tbsp. chili flakes
  • 1 bunch basil
  • 2 oz. pine nuts
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Black pepper, to taste
  1. Puree all ingredients together in a food processor.
  2. Add a small amount of cold water if needed to gain desired texture and thickness.
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