While farm-to-table restaurant chefs trek across LA to forage for fresh local produce at farmers markets, Chef Bruno Morin gets the job done just a few paces outside his door at Bistro de la Gare in South Pasadena.
Every Thursday afternoon, Bruno’s corner restaurant is surrounded by more than 50 farms and artisans attending the South Pasadena Farmers Market, which extends through the cross streets of El Centro St. and Meridian Ave.
“It’s just next door,” said Bruno. “It couldn’t be better.”
The market opens to the public from 4 to 8pm, but the vendors allow Bruno to get a head start while they set up their tents and tables. With a shopping list in hand, Bruno begins making the first of many round trips from the market to his kitchen.
“This is what I do,” he said. “I go back and forth.”
Bruno shuffles quickly between stalls but takes his time to speak to the vendors and inspect individual fruits and vegetables. In a bin of cauliflowers from Underwood Family Farms, he digs until he finds ones that are snow white. He bites into a green bean from Valdivia Farms to measure its snappiness. And he sniffs the top of a tomato from Beylik Family Farms to take in the scent of the vine.
“These guys do a sweet orange like you never tried orange in your life. It’s beautiful,” said Bruno of the citrus from McFarlin Family Farms.
Shopping outdoor markets is second nature to Chef Bruno as a native of France, where farmers markets have thrived for centuries. He learned to cook from his Italian father, and the mixture of his heritage influenced his cuisine. From the outset, Bruno worked in well-reviewed restaurants, most notably in Paris, Chicago, and New York, including an earlier stint Los Angeles. Southern California’s climate, especially in the winter, agrees with his passion for fresh cuisine.
“In New York right now, it’s too cold. A lot of their produce comes from Mexico,” he said.
When Bruno took over Bistro de la Gare in 2013, it marked his return to the LA area. He previously cheffed at bygone restaurants, L’Orangerie and Cafe Largo.
Bistro de la Gare translates to Station Bistro, named for its proximity to the Metro Gold Line train station one block away. This junction is known for its historic buildings and lately has seen a resurgence of restaurant and cafe openings.
The conveniently close South Pasadena Farmers Market has been in operation for 20 years, featuring dining areas, live music, and holiday events. As a frequent patron, Bruno enjoys discounts from several of the farms. He doesn’t mind reciprocating and inviting the farmers to enjoy a drink or meal at his restaurant after the market closes.
The market is also a chance to interact with his regulars. “When I go shopping, I see a lot of my customers,” he said. “They recognize me. They ask me, ‘What’s good? What did you buy?’”
If you order a soup, salad, appetizer, or dessert at Bistro de la Gare, it will be chock full of freshly bought produce.
“I think people like raw vegetables,” Bruno said. “They don’t want it cooked too much.”
Bruno’s shopping isn’t limited to fruits and vegetables. He buys pistachios and walnuts from Avila and Sons Farms, and baguettes from Frogs Bakery. Bruno even has his knives sharpened by market vendor Sharper Edge.
“I’ve been buying from these places for over four years. So, we’ve built a relationship,” he said.
When the restaurant opens at 5:30pm, the market is in full swing. Diners can choose to eat outside on the sidewalks immersed in live music and the sounds of commerce. Or they can watch all the activity while seated inside along the large windows. As a courtesy on Thursdays, Bruno makes room in the refrigerators, giving customers a space to store their farmers market loot while they dine.
On any given day, Bistro de la Gare offers five to six specials, depending on what’s available from the market. Mainstays on the dinner menu include French classics, such as as quiche, french onion soup, escargot, croque monsieur, chocolate mousse, and creme brulee. On weekends, the restaurant offers brunch from 10:30am to 2:30pm with a menu that includes french toast, omelettes, eggs benedict, crepes, and ratatouille.