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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sebastopol's Hip Chick Farms Is Blowing Up

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge HIP CHICK FARMS
  • Hip Chick Farms

While Jen Johnson has been a chef for the past 25 years, including a decade working with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, it’s her stint in Ann and Gordon Getty’s private kitchen that brought her to where she is today.

Johnson has served President Barack Obama dinner on at least three occasions, and her food undoubtedly played a role in any fundraising pitches he made to wealthy supporters, which may even have helped him win (re)election. On the other hand, it’s the Montessori School on the premises that really shaped her career trajectory, as Johnson’s wife and business partner, Serafina Palendech, elaborated to SF Weekly.

“Every day the kids would come in and sit around her big far table in the kitchen,” Palandech said. She’d cook their lunches, “and they’d go home and ask their moms for Chef Jen’s chicken fingers.”

That’s the story behind Hip Chick Farms, a venture between Palandech and Johnson (and their four-year-old, Ruby Rose, about whom more later) that makes chicken meatballs, chicken nuggets and more. In only a few short years, Hip Chick has acquired national distribution, including to Sprouts and Whole Foods, and will be on Northern California Safeway shelves in just a few weeks.

While the farm itself is where some of the slaughter takes place, it’s also become a proper menagerie, including horses, donkeys, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, cats, and fish. It’s gotten to where Palandech is “technically not allowed to go onto Craigslist anymore.” And last year, the Hip Chicks raised their first turkeys, slaughtering one and giving the other to friends.

click to enlarge HIP CHICK FARMS
  • Hip Chick Farms
“After we dressed and killed it, it was 43 pounds, which is a pound bigger than my daughter,” Palandech said. “Our draught horses, two of them are retired, but the manure they produce is seasoned ands we use it to grow our vegetables. All our daughter’s friends climb all over them. They’re like big dogs.”

Having grown up in Los Angeles, Palandech wanted Ruby Rose to grow up knowing where food comes from.

“She knows how to grow vegetables. She knows where her eggs come from. She knows how to kill a turkey,” Palandeh added. “It doesn’t bother her at all. It’s just a part of her life.

If there’s a touch of latter-day Laura Ingalls Wilder to this life, there’s also a back-to-the-land lesbian ethos. Contrary to a recent Modern Farmer photo-essay of LGBT farmers nationwide, which showed a touch of loneliness to being gay in the hinterlands, Palandech feels like part of a larger community.

“There’s a large community of LGBT folks in Sebastopol,” she said. “A lot who have kids. Farmers, some. But even if they’re not farming there’s a generalize interest in building a community around sustainable food systems.”

Since putting down roots in Sonoma, Palandech and Johnson have been on a media blitz. A few unsuccessful auditions for various iterations of Shark Tank and a philosophy of saying yes to almost everything eventually led to a Food Network debut this week, before the panel of potential investors on “Food Fortunes.” Filming required that they borrow live chickens in L.A., while en route to the studio.

And that Obama connection? It goes even deeper. Beyond First Lady Michelle Obama having made combating childhood obesity through better school lunches her signature issue, Johnson was actually cooking for Vice President Biden while Palandech and I were speaking. She got to meet the president on one of his stops at the Gettys’, too.

“She got her photo taken with him,” Palandech said. “It was right around the time he was advocating for marriage equality, and so she wanted to say something to him that was meaningful, but you only have a moment. She said, ‘President Obama, my wife and my daughter and I all love your family.’ They took the photo and as she was stepping away, he grabbed her and pulled her back and said, ‘Tell you family that my family says “Hey.”’ He got it, one family to another family: respect.”
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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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