Joseph Shuldiner was reflecting on all that has happened to him—and much of what he has made happen—over the past few years. After careers as a gallery owner, graphic designer and artist, he's entered another phase of his life, and he is in a fortunate position: he no longer works for anyone. Rather, he works on projects of his own design, focusing on educating the public about the value of urban farming and quality food. "I think everything I've done in my life has prepared me for this moment," he said.
Indeed, his history has caught up with his future. It all started in 2010 when he created the Institute of Domestic Technology, based at the Zane Grey estate in Altadena. Things have taken off since then. In May of 2012 there was the publication of Shuldiner's "Pure Vegan" cookbook. In September, a feature in Bon Appetit. Now, Shuldiner's institute is offering a full plate of classes at the Zane Grey in a spiffy updated kitchen and he's added a roster of cooking and cocktail classes in Greystone's Downton Abbey-style kitchen and a hidden bar that he claims was a Prohibition-era speakeasy at the storied Beverly Hills site.
And he was recently asked to rethink the landmark Grand Central Market downtown by its owners. The covered market, located between 3rd Street and 4th Streets, spanning a block from Broadway to Hill Street, has been in continual use since 1917. Shuldiner knows he's treading a fine line, fully aware that preservationists are ready to pounce if he destroys the "charm" of the market. But as he points out, much of the produce for sale there is of very poor quality and many of the stalls are empty. (I love the place, but stopped buying produce there years ago and a recent visit just left me feeling sad for what used to be.) It needs a good cleaning and some updated vendors to lure the cadre of hip downtown foodies lined up outside of Wurstkuche and Pie Hole. Shuldiner feels up to the task, working with cookbook author Kevin West, architects BCV, and developer Rick Moses, hand-picking (or must I say "curating") a wide array of purveyors and vendors to mix with those already there on long term leases.
"Hopefully seeing the quality of the new vendors will rub off on the old and they will learn something," Shuldiner says. Educating consumers and home cooks is high on his agenda. To that end, the market's windowless lower floor will house a foodcraft hall with flour millers and other artisanal suppliers for those who want to cook and bake at home. It remains to be seen if the new market will continue to be a venue for the many Latino families who make it a destination during their Saturday shopping trips, or whether Broadway, as it gentrifies, will push out the vibrant shops affordable for the poor that have become the street's hallmark over the past decades. It's an issue many cities grapple with and it will be interesting to watch as Los Angeles makes a stab at it.
I caught up with Shuldiner, who is an energetic 54, on a recent sunny Altadena afternoon. He's dressed like a farmer in jeans and a big straw cowboy hat, sporting his Altadena Farmers Market t-shirt. Relaxed and in schmooze mode, he makes his way up and down the small strip of stands at the edge of Loma Alta Park, reuseable bag in hand. The market began as an off-the-radar effort to provide a venue for Altadena's backyard farmers, started by Gloria Putnam and Steve Rudicel at the Zane Grey estate (where they also run a small urban farm with some crops and goats and chickens.) When it outgrew the Zane Grey space, the Altadena Town Council asked Shuldiner to find a spot and launch a "certified" market. After a year of wrangling with the LA County Agricultural Commission, Shuldiner finally got certification to make the market official at Loma Alta Park. Shuldiner loves Altadena and considers it the epicenter for all things organic, artisanal and DIY. "It's our Brooklyn," he told Bon Appetit.
The Wednesday market is tiny but presents a pastiche of the foods Shuldiner loves. Come hungry. There are icy fresh oysters to slurp, Cajun shrimp hand pies and Japanese mumumi (rice balls stuffed with meat, fish or veggies) to eat, Sqirl jam to sample and lots of people to chat up. Everyone at this small market has been invited to participate, from the coffee roaster Plow & Gun ("They're going to be making coffee soda in summer,") to Spade and Seed, offering seedlings of obscure and unusual lettuces and greens, to the Bulgarini gelato maker and a raft of local organic farmers.
Like the hunters and gatherers of bygone times, Shuldiner has channeled their spirit and turned it into a career: not gathering nuts and berries, although that's part of his passion, but rather gathering people. The best artisanal jam makers, spice sellers, coffee roasters, bread bakers, flour millers, mustard makers, farmers and home brewers and making all their goods and expertise available to anyone who's interested. Many of them are people Shuldiner got to know in past jobs, working as a downtown gallery owner (way before it was fashionable), graphic designer or cookbook author. Now he's gathered them together to offer their wares, or their knowledge. You can buy jam at the farmer's market, or learn to make it yourself at the Institute of Domestic Technology. Buy your beans from Intelligentsia, or learn to roast some at home. Likewise for mustard, hard cider, levain (the no-knead sourdough bread-of-the-moment), fruit leather, queso fresco and the list goes on. Shuldiner has jumped into the DIY movement at what seems like just the right moment, bringing together those principles and coupling them with ecological and environmental concerns. (He's the guy who brings his own straw and plates to the farmer's market so he won't have to use paper, plastic or Styrofoam and wants every farmer's market eventually to do the same, with a washing station set up to clean them for reuse.) His interest in the mechanics of food goes way back: he remembers asking his parents for a mill to grind his own flour for his birthday when he was a boy.
A recent weekend day of Foodcrafting 101 ($125) at Shuldiner's Institute took about 10 students through bread, jam, mustard and cheese making. Classes at Zane Grey or Greystone last all day. Shuldiner is there to supervise, adding his own commentary and instructions to those of the teachers. The principles and rules of water canning safety are discussed and demonstrated in great detail, knowledge he learned in a 13-week class at the University of California Cooperative Extension in East LA, on his way to becoming a Master Food Preserver. And students are taught not only to be cautious, safe and adventurous, but design-conscious. "Pretty is an ingredient," he says, as he advises students to cut their carrots uniformly for pickling. The table is strewn with bottles of natural flavorings and spices, liquers and essences and over the course of the day, everyone is encouraged to experiment.
Shuldiner and his crew of artisan/teachers have thought of everything, putting together a beautiful breakfast and mid-day lunch to fortify you for the day. You leave happy and exhausted, along with the fruits (or vegetables) of your labor, a folder full of recipes, a list of resources for ingredients and insights, and a sense of accomplishment. The teachers love to share their trade secrets, and their enthusiasm is contagious. If you've never been in a kitchen when the aroma of fresh cheese curds or bread in the oven fills the air, or watched blueberries and sugar bubbling into jam, you are missing out on some of life's simplest but most rewarding pleasures. Students are encouraged to find their inner Martha Stewart.
Once you realize that you're not in high school anymore and that in 2013 cooking, baking and canning are what the cool people do, you'll have a blast.