Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen is a wonderful place to walk into: clean white walls, a high-pitched ceiling with wooden beams and light, light, light pouring in from the many windows and skylights. The décor is modern and minimal, with simple wood and metal tables and chairs. A row of red, orange and yellow bell peppers preserved in big mason jars lines one wall and overlooks the community table, which has a mini garden filled with plants running through its center. The atmosphere here, just like the food, is sincere and honest. When I met Soma Franks and Fiona Wong, joint owners of the venture (which opened in December of 2012), they explained why the principles of homesteading are important to the philosophy behind their first restaurant.
For Soma and Fiona, the mission of Sweetwater is to nourish people with food. Meat, produce and even beverages are sourced locally as much as possible, and the pair chooses organic products. But what really sets the restaurant apart is its commitment to sustainability and homemade products—two of the major principles of homesteading. The modern use of the term dates to the 1960s and 70s, when people began to focus on self-sufficiency and sustainability, in both rural and urban settings. Growing and preserving your own food, using less energy, creating less waste, making products yourself and even raising your own livestock or bees are all elements of homesteading. My mom, for example, handmade clothes for my brothers and me, and never purchased baby food—she made it from scratch instead. She baked all our bread and even grew her own sprouts in jars.
Homemade dishes and ingredients are what give Sweetwater its sense of integrity. While I spoke with Soma and Fiona, I noshed on some of their homemade gRAWnola—100% organic sprouted live-food granola, made with sprouted buckwheat, pumpkin seeds, goji berries and coconut, doused in sugar-free almond milk. The berries and coconut provided just a hint of sweetness. I decided to try another unique item on the menu, the buckwheat pancakes. The restaurant has a stone mill for grinding fresh, organic flours from whole-grain spelt and buckwheat, which is also used for pasta. Fiona pointed out that the nutrients in flour oxidize rapidly within 24 hours, so it’s important to grind flour every day to increase nutrition. I could taste that these pancakes were special and truly homemade. They were hearty but ultra-fluffy and soaked up every bit of the real maple syrup I poured over them.
The principles of homesteading have always existed—it’s a way of life—but they’ve been gaining momentum again as people become more aware of problems inherent in our modern-day food supply. Fiona knows firsthand how disconnected consumers can be from the sources of their food. Originally from Singapore, she spent much of her life as a city girl in places like New York and San Francisco, embedded in a cosmopolitan lifestyle. When she moved to Santa Fe in 2006, she planted a garden, which became part of the inspiration for Sweetwater. “I was so ignorant and naive about how things grow,” she told me. “We bought things in supermarkets which were all beautifully packaged. The first time I harvested from my garden, I couldn’t recognize the radishes—they didn’t look like what I got in the supermarket! It was quite a spiritual experience for me.”
“Homesteading is reactionary to what’s happening with food,” Soma continued. “If we’re going to survive, these are skills that we’ll need.”
Fiona agreed. “More people are conscious,” she said. “Everybody is waking up to healthy eating.” The pair reminded me that more people these days are having trouble with food, especially gluten. While they don’t want to be exclusively a vegan or gluten-free restaurant, both women find it important to offer these types of choices to diners. Although the menu is suitable for vegetarians and vegans, and many items are gluten-free, there’s still something for everyone. In the morning you can order a breakfast burrito or try the Mediterranean breakfast quinoa with dates, apricots and honey. For dinner, items range from traditional shrimp and grits to Indonesian vegetable curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and blue ginger. I had a bowl of the curry, which is made using Fiona’s grandmother’s recipe, and it was lovely: thick and creamy, with big crisp chunks of root vegetables and a spicy punch.
Soma is a master at accommodating special dietary preferences, having been a server off and on for 25 years. For her, owning a restaurant and serving high quality food is the best way to give back to our community. She mentioned working for Katharine Kagel, the owner of Café Pasqual’s, whose commitment to organic food helped inspire Sweetwater. Although Soma has a long history of being interested in food (she learned about organic farming and the importance of eating locally in college), she became even more concerned with what’s happening to our food supply after she became a mother. “I wanted to have a place where people can be nourished and feel good when they leave,” she said. “We can have a positive impact on society in that way.”
Soma and Fiona want Sweetwater to be a great restaurant, but they also want it to be a gathering place and a tool for building community. They use the premises as a drop point for a local CSA. Farmers bring their bags of produce to the restaurant, where participants pick them up. In return for hosting, the pair receives a couple bags of produce from the farmers, which they incorporate into the menu. They also participate in the café at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market by turning some of the farmers’ vegetables into curry. Shoppers can get a delicious meal, and proceeds go to benefit the farmers’ market.
At Sweetwater, the homestead approach extends beyond food and into the world of beverage. The restaurant makes fresh coconut nectar and kombucha, a lightly effervescent, fermented drink. I was eager to try the coconut nectar, but it was sold out; although it’s made three times a week, the restaurant can’t keep it in supply. “People come here just for the coconut nectar,” Soma told me. The process is labor intensive and expensive. Raw coconuts are tapped and drained of their milk, and then the flesh of the fruit is scraped. Together the milk and flesh are run through a Vitamix blender. The result is worth the effort. The completely raw nectar is super hydrating and the perfect companion to the homemade gRAWnola.
Most of the beers are sourced locally, including Marble Brewery Pilsner and Wildflower Wheat, Dual Brewery Bad Amber, Santa Fe Brewing Company State Penn Porter and La Cumbre Brewing Company IPA from Albuquerque. Locally produced mead is also offered, made from local wildflower honey, yeast and fruit from Santa Fe’s Falcon Meadery. Customers can choose from original mountain, peach or cherry mead, or have a sample flight with a two-ounce pour of each.
For me, one of the most exciting elements of Sweetwater is wine on tap. It’s the first restaurant in New Mexico to offer wine in this way, and I love the idea of reducing the amount of glass bottles, labels, foils, corks and wine shipping boxes in our city. Wines are delivered in kegs made from recyclable materials that hold over two cases worth of wine. The dispensing system keeps wine fresh for three months and holds the temperature steady. The wines themselves, made by Niven Family Wine Estates, are SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certified. Although the keg system does take up space and requires an investment in equipment, it was perfect for Soma and Fiona, who planned sustainable techniques for the restaurant from the beginning. “The wines are great quality so it’s not economic at all,” Soma explained. “It’s not about cheap wines. It’s about sustainability. It feels good to be doing this.”
Commitment is just one more aspect of what makes Sweetwater so special. Is it more difficult to practice homesteading in a restaurant setting? “The volume is so much greater,” Fiona explained. Soma added, “We’re taking it step-by-step and evolving as we go.”
The pair have plenty planned for the restaurant in the future, including canning and preserving foods, particularly jams, to use in-house and to sell. They have planted a small grow bed of herbs and edible flowers on the back patio and hope to later install grow towers. Soma and Fiona would also like to delve into making fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi. I can’t wait to see what comes next for Sweetwater and these two dedicated women, whose commitment to providing the best quality food for their community is very sweet indeed.
Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen is located at 1512 Pacheco Street in Santa Fe. 505.795.7383. sweetwatersf.com.
Story by Erin Brooks; photos by Gabriella Marks