Most people never think about where their food comes from, but that’s all Chef Leah Di Bernardo thinks about, and she’s on a mission to change your food for thought. The 53-year-old founder-culinary director of E.A.T (Extraordinary Artisan Table) Marketplace in Temecula fears that if we don’t start thinking about our food, we will lose the agriculture that creates it. “There’s going to be no chocolate, it’s going to be synthetic. There’s going to be no more coffee, no more bananas, no more vanilla, and we will stop harvesting good clean, organic food on healthy soil in 50 years, unless we start to change course,” she says. Di Bernardo has started a revolution in the Temecula Valley on regenerative farming, a holistic approach to agriculture. Regenerative farming incorporates measures to improve water and air quality, enhance ecosystem biodiversity to produce nutrient-dense food, and store carbon to help deflect climate change and promote responsible farming and clean eating.
It’s also a social revolution where farm-to-table dinners have become trendy, sparking important conversations on the subject. Di Bernardo started producing After Fridays Farm-to-Table Supper events in Temecula in 2002. “Every time we do one of these events, somebody gets it,” she says. Dialogues that started at those tables led to awareness, awareness led to change, and in two years Chef Leah implemented 26 garden programs at elementary schools throughout Temecula Valley. “I don’t ever stop to ask if I can, I just present it. I [say] ‘this is really important and this is why and this is how we’re going to get there’…. I got Temecula Valley on a path to understand its agri- cultural heritage, and I’m very proud that I could bring farmers, vintners and city politicians to the table,” she says. Because of her dedication, Temecula Valley High School now has a “Regen Club,” short for “regenerative,” that grew from 9 to 100 members in less than a year.
At a recent farm-to-table supper, she had those students volunteering and speaking to guests about the importance of regenerative farming. Not only were they examples of the success of the regen movement, but they also served as messengers. From elementary schools to colleges, Di Bernardo’s quest to eat clean and save the planet is never ending. She is the Culinary In- structor at Mt. San Jacinto College, where 85 acres are dedicated to regenerative farming. The college reportedly plans to offer a fully accredited academic program on regenerative farming. As passionate as she is about her mission, ironically she never wanted to be a chef, but it was in her blood. Both her grandfathers were in the business: one was a chef, the other a deli owner.
Additionally, she grew up in a family where there were no processed foods—everything was fresh. “I didn’t go to culinary school because I never wanted to cook,” she says. Instead she studied language. “I went to school in England and in order to stay, I had to find jobs and I always found myself in kitchens.” Working her way through Europe when she was in her early 20s, Di Bernardo eventually found herself in Switzerland. It was there that a female German chef took her under her wing. She was an “old school” chef who planted the roots Di Bernardo would later utilize in her journey to becoming the chef she is today. Still fighting the pull toward the food industry, Di Bernardo returned to the United States and went to film school at Long Beach College. She wanted to tell stories and thought she could do that through the art of film. Her first film was on the bulldozing of rainforests, and it reignited in her a love for the land that started as a child.
Her father was a farmer, and Di Bernardo grew up on five acres in Oregon. “It was that farming, doing it with [my father] that ingrained something in me. It made so much sense,” she says. Another film project helped mesh her love for the land and the influence food has on health. It was the early 1990s and she was working for a production company on a documentary about depression. She says she started making the connection between food and its affects on both physical and mental health. “I started to educate myself on [pharmaceuticals] and what they can do to the body,” she says. Di Bernardo began visiting farms across the country, pitching ideas on the clean food and body-mind connection to various production companies. No one was interested.
So after her daughter was born, she moved to Temecula and decided to do it herself. She saw how people were disengaged with the role food plays on health and the environment. She made it her mission to change that. “I got that disconnect clearly,” she says, so she decided to “figure out how to do food in a beautiful way that’s still entertaining and delicious,” she says. FOOD & DRINK Enter E.A.T. Marketplace. It began with a vision board that her daughter, a toddler at the time, helped her color. Fast forward 15 years and E.A.T. Marketplace has been featured in numerous publications, including the L.A. Times, Boston Globe and Huffington Post. Di Bernardo won Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Sterling Business of the Year award in 2018 and was named Chef of the Year. As the name implies, E.A.T. Marketplace is not just a restaurant; it’s a forum where locally produced foods and goods are sold, which supports local businesses. “It’s taken a whole community to raise E.A.T., I haven’t done it by myself,” Di Bernardo says, noting that five or six of the companies she deals with are woman-owned. E.A.T. gave them a platform to showcase their products.
Roast House Coffee is one of those companies. It’s the coffee served at E.A.T., and although Di Bernardo’s sister owns the company, family ties is not why she got the nod to present her coffee at E.A.T. “She was the only roaster that I could find that had certified organic coffee with a story behind it, that went out of its way to help women around the world,” Di Bernardo says. Coffee and supporting women are driving factors pushing Di Bernardo’s mission. She encourages everyone to pull the curtain back and see who’s making their food and coffee. “Coffee as a commodity is abused. You can’t ‘roast out’ chemicals…. Just because it says it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you,” Di Bernardo says. Di Bernardo is a pioneer for Temecula Valley’s Slow Food Movement, and its principles are an integral part of her philosophy: good, clean and fair food.
Slow Food is a global grassroots movement. According to slowfood.org, it started in Italy in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast food, and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, and how our food choices affect the world around us. Although she is no longer a part of the movement, she loves and supports what they do. For example, encouraging people to shop their local farmer’s markets and ask questions of vendors, such as if they are certified organic. And if you are not going to go organic, she says, at least know the dirty dozen, which are fruits and vegetables with high amounts of pesticides due to their thin skins. Examples include strawberries, apples, cucumbers and tomatoes. Cleaning your produce is also important, but you don’t need to buy fancy washes. She advises using peroxide diluted in water to remove the waxes and chemicals. A final piece of advice: “Know what you are putting in your body. If it has more than five or six ingredients and words you can’t pronounce, don’t buy it.” Not only will you be doing your body a favor, but also the environment, she adds. To learn more about Chef Leah and E.A.T. Market- place, see eatmarketplace.com.