Chef Coby Leibman and his Sonoma, California–based Blossoming Caravan Catering company are certainly setting a new trend: catering based completely on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients—plus a good amount foraged directly from the wilds of nature.
“Especially in Spain, France, Italy and elsewhere in Europe, there’s a real tradition of buying everything fresh that day, bringing it home and cooking it,” Leibman told Calmful Living. “Things are bought at the market ripe, not left to ripen or picked green. That’s where the fullest flavor comes from.
“I had experienced that tradition, so when I went to start my own company I was striving to bring the freshest ingredients to people. I naturally gravitate more toward those who are doing organic farming practices and small-scale and biodynamic. What I love most is bringing to people local seasonal flavors, prepared simply.”
Straight from the Wild
In addition to sourcing from local farmers, Leibman has also become a champion forager for totally wild ingredients. “Foraging for mushrooms is something that I learned in France and Spain,” Leibman said. “It’s just part of the culture; everyone does it. I’ve been doing it for about 12-plus years. At one place I go to, you can harvest up to ten pounds of mushrooms, and there are black trumpet chanterelles, porcinis, yellow chanterelles, hedgehog mushrooms—a really wide variety. I go up there and pick on a regular basis and implement those into the cuisine.
“I also incorporate wild plants that are in season—things like wild nettles, huckleberries and elderberries; they have amazing flavors and are not used a great deal in the culinary industry because it’s hard to get large quantities of them.
“It’s a passion that I have. I love being in the outdoors, going to really wild places and harvesting the bounty of what’s coming in at any particular season.”
The Catering versus Restaurant Decision
Leibman has been cooking for most of his life. He discovered his love of culinary pursuits at the age of eight when he began cooking a meal for his family once a week. Following high school he ended up traveling the world for ten years and cooking in many capacities, even for a kibbutz in Israel. After returning home to the San Francisco Bay area, he graduated from the California Culinary Academy in 2006 and commenced his career in earnest, serving in numerous San Francisco top-of-the-line eateries.
Because of his experiences in Europe and elsewhere abroad with local and seasonal cooking, Leibman was always working in that direction. Some chefs going local and seasonal decide to open a restaurant as opposed to a catering company—and a number of them have certainly succeeded at it. But Leibman sought the relative freedom that being a caterer would provide.
“I worked for various restaurants for years,” Leibman related. “Working the line takes a lot of effort and involves long hours. Most of the chefs that I was interacting with were pretty burnt out and weren’t getting a chance to actually cook as much as they were doing book work and designing menus.
“Bringing the local fresh/local organic ingredients into a restaurant setting is considerably more difficult than in catering. You generally have to place orders on a regular basis and have a somewhat consistent menu for your clientele. Some restaurants are able to do seasonal, but in general most restaurants have to have a fixed menu that doesn’t necessarily change with the seasons or with what’s fresh and local. So I just naturally gravitated toward a schedule that for me was more sustainable and allowed me to be directly involved in the cooking process on a deeper level.”
Giving the Customer a Choice
When you’re sourcing everything seasonally, you obviously can’t have fixed menus from which patrons request their favorite dishes. Leibman has found a way that completely works for him and his clients. “I have them fill out an intake series of questions,” he said. “I get what types of foods turn them off and what they are really interested in. Then I’ve designed a series of menus through the years based on the seasons, which I keep on file. I give each client probably forty options, based on the time of year and what I know is coming in from the farmers. They generally choose the ones that stand out the best to them, and I’ll prepare those.”
Success Speaks for Itself
After four years of operating Blossoming Caravan Catering, how have these flavors translated into business? “I’ve got nothing but 5-star reviews on Yelp,” Leibman reported proudly. “At every event they say it’s the best food that they’ve ever had catered for them. I think people are just really taken aback at how fresh the ingredients are, and how much you can taste the flavor of the land, where it was grown and the care that was taken in growing it.”
Leibman has a wide variety of clients—from wine-country tourists looking to experience the local bounty, to weddings and other kinds of parties, and even those requiring his regular services as a personal chef.
A Personal Mission
Given his passion for local, seasonal ingredients, it makes sense that Leibman has several missions that pervade his work.
“Developing local economies and helping support local farmers is a big piece of what I do,” said Leibman. “I love bringing consciousness to the difference of care being taken in growing food and growing it in sustainable ways. I pay the farmers fair prices and work out with them what I would like grown so they can support themselves on what they do.
“I also bring a different spirit of food to people that translates into how it feels in your body, the general health of everyone who eats it.
“I educate people as to where the food is coming from, not only the farms but the history of the foods. That is really important to me—how these foods were carried along by different peoples and different migrations. For that reason seed saving is very important to me too, preserving those rare varieties and those ancestral seeds. It’s a large part of what I do so that they can continue to show up on menus and people’s tables for generations to come.”
For more information on Chef Coby Leibman and his services, please visit www.cobyleibman.com.