Championing the farmer is the mantra for many, if not most, new kitchens these days. But the team at Peasants Feast — which occupies that glassy greenhouse in the heart of Solvang — is activating that mentality like few others: by volunteering on farms as part of their restaurant training, much like what Chef Michael Cherney experienced while working in the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into one carrot,” explains Cherney, who opened the restaurant with his wife, Sarah Cherney, on April 1. “If you drop it on the floor, you should feel it.”
That’s quite the opposite of what the chef witnessed while working for three years at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, the more casual, open-kitchen sister to one of the best restaurants in the country. Overall, it was a formative and relatively lucrative tenure, funding backpacking trips around the world on which Cherney connected with new cuisines and cultures. But there’s tremendous waste at that level of fine dining — just one piece of lettuce pulled from an entire head, or a slender filet pulled from an entire fish, or fresh sorrel leaves flown in three times a day from Los Angeles.
At Peasants Feast, on the other hand, Cherney can turn one lamb into 11 different dishes, utilize the whole head of a pig, and boil cobs for the stock of his corn soup, whose sweet yet roasted flavors are enhanced by crispy shallots, chili pepper, and chives, all also fresh from nearby farms. They buy bread from bakers in Solvang and Los Alamos, pick up lettuce on their way from home to work, and order fish directly from Travis Meyer and Stephanie Mutz.
“You’re literally eating it the day it’s harvested,” said Michael of the produce. Adds Sarah, “If Travis doesn’t catch anything that week, we won’t have fish tacos on the menu.”
That would suck for you, since their seabass is expertly cooked, its moist yet delicately seared flesh riding atop the slaw, roasted salsa verde, and hand-pressed tortillas. The carnitas taco would quickly make you forget any missing fish, though. Its crunchy, salty, savory, mouth-watering deliciousness even prompted me to write in my notebook, “I will think about this tonight.” The $15 order for two, which comes with a peppy take on Lompoc Valley’s pinquito beans, should adequately fill the emptiest belly.
“Everything is very fresh, so occasionally we run out of food,” said Sarah, to which Michael corrected: “We run out of food quite often.”
That’s even true despite having launched their dream restaurant — something they’ve pined for since 2016 — during a global pandemic. Much of what they’re serving today, like the tacos, sandwiches, and salads, represents the lunch menu. It doubles as a takeout-friendly pivot, but it wasn’t exactly the official plan, at least for dinner, which included a centrally located Jamón Ibérico, plenty of shared plates, and large communal tables, one with a throne on the end. “I wanted people to fight over the throne,” laughed Michael, who hopes to one day serve the full porchetta, bone-in ribeye, and other hefty dishes of his original design.
Not that the scaled-down menu is lacking. Specials have included that porchetta (but in a sandwich) and schnitzel (but on a salad), while family-style meals offer significant chunks of brisket or whole fried chicken for $23. Their shaved Brussels sprouts salad is a textural triumph — lignified by hazelnuts, softened by ricotta, splashed in slurpable lemon honey dressing — and the hot chicken sandwich is laughably good, a smile-cracking splendor of tingly spice and crackling skin and supple meat.
Even the side dishes sing a strong tune, like the potatoes — boiled, left overnight, then double-fried, they were so airy I assumed erroneously they’d been mashed and then reconstituted — and the pickled treats, usually about 15 of them, including watermelon rind and teardrop peppers. Dessert is no slouch, either — the Cherneys’ daughter, Reina, makes the ice cream, and the Nannie’s frozen lime pie, with graham cracker crust, creamy sherbet, and a spongy Italian meringue on top, is an ode to Sarah’s mom, who died last year.
There’s a story behind every dish, according to the Cherneys, who both come from food-loving families in the San Fernando Valley. Michael’s dad (who died when the chef was young) once flew in $300 of Chinese food from his favorite restaurant in Boston, and Sarah’s mom hosted lavish, extravagant parties while believing in a connection between spirituality and nourishment. “She felt food had a lot of energy and healing powers,” said Sarah.
Sarah’s Santa Ynez Valley ties go back to childhood — her first Christmas was spent at Alisal Ranch — as her grandparents loved Solvang and retired here. She moved up in 1998 when she was 21 years old and found work in restaurants, eventually becoming the general manager of Sides Hardware & Shoes, an establishment in Los Olivos.
That’s where she met Michael in 2012, when he moved to town to work for Matt and Jeff Nichols, restaurateur siblings best known as “The Brothers.” He’d graduated from the Art Institute’s culinary program in Santa Monica and worked at Michelin-starred Ortolan before his Joël Robuchon and WWOOF gigs. The Brothers were about to open their restaurant at the Red Barn in Santa Ynez, so Michael was soon in charge of the kitchen at Sides, which the Nichols also owned.
On January 16, 2013, what was supposed to be a group of friends going out to dinner turned into just Sarah and Michael. Though pledging that it was “not a date,” they clicked. “We’ve spent three nights apart since,” said Michael, who went on to high-level jobs at Firestone-Walker and Mesa Burger before focusing on their shared restaurant dreams.
In 2019, a bit frustrated with the restaurant hunt, the Cherneys launched Peasants Feast as a catering company, which allowed Michael to test his recipes. Soon they found their Solvang location, formerly the Greek restaurant Petros and, prior to that, The Greenhouse Café. The glass structure was built as an actual greenhouse many years earlier by its owner, Aaron Petersen, the Solvang businessman behind the city’s Chomp eateries, which are expanding into the Santa Barbara Harbor this month. The kitchen was small — just four burners and a flattop — but the location was ideal, even if the pandemic timing was not.
Officially, the name Peasants Feast is a nod to the often-forgotten folks who farm the farms, cook the food, and make the world go ’round in quiet ways. But the Cherneys have often felt a bit like peasants themselves during their long quest to open their own restaurant.
“We put everything we have in this place,” said Michael, but he’s proud to be spreading a message. “There has to be a purpose — otherwise there’s no point for me.”
As to surviving in a greenhouse with a small kitchen during a pandemic? “We’re peasants,” he smiled. “We’ll deal with what we’ve got.”
487 Atterdag Rd., Solvang; (805) 686-4555; peasantsfeast.com
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