Steve Rudicel grew up at the historic Zane Grey Estate, a rambling 18,000 square foot Mediterranean-style mansion in Altadena, the former home of the famed Western novelist. When his father died in 2004, Rudicel, a restaurateur who owns The Press in Pomona, and his girlfriend Gloria Putnam, a trained physicist who works for Kodak, moved back to the family homestead with his mother. With an eye toward sustainability the couple put in solar panels, a green roof and an edible garden in the front yard. Desiring fresher milk, they purchased several goats. That was the beginning of a new adventure: Today Rudicel’s boyhood home is also a goat farm and creamery that produces award-winning goat cheese, and, as of last August, hosts the Institute of Domestic Technology.
The brainchild of Joseph Shuldiner, a former magazine creative director and the author of Pure Vegan, a cookbook coming out in May from Chronicle Books, the Institute is not a culinary school per se, but a place to learn the archaic arts of “foodcrafting”: skills like jamming and pickling that were once a part of everyday life before food became industrialized. The Institute’s signature class, Foodcrafting 101, is an all-day workshop offered once a month, in which participants learn to make artisanal bread, cheese, jam and mustard – all of which are remarkably simple to do. “That kind of blows people’s minds,” Shuldiner says with a broad grin. “We’re very conscious about teaching things that don’t require really fancy tools. We want people to be able to go home and replicate what they learn in class.”
The Institute also offers slightly less practical classes like Cocktail Crafting, as well as three-part cheese making courses that have drawn people from as far as Palo Alto. Shuldiner recalls one student from Las Vegas who would ride out on his motorcycle and leave at the end of the day with cheese samples strapped to his back. “That was the biggest compliment I could ever get.”
On a beautiful spring day, Shuldiner rounded up a group of his instructors and collaborators in the alternative food movement, to demonstrate their skills and end the afternoon, in typical fashion, with an impromptu party. “There’s always a little something extra at the Institute,” says its Director, noting that a recent all-day workshop about citrus fruit ended with mimosas. This particular day’s participants included Shuldiner, Rudicel and Putnam, plus Karen Klemens, owner of the organic ice cream shop Mother Moo Creamery, in Sierra Madre; Eric Knutzen, author of The Urban Homestead and Making It; coffee roaster and Home Beer Brewing instructor Daniel Kent; Alexandra Agajanian, manager of the Hollywood Farmers Market; urban farmer Craig Rugless of Winnetka Farms; and egg farmer Christian Sariol of Sugarhouse Farms, who lives across the street.
Classes take place in a spacious commercial kitchen built this past summer in one of the estate’s outbuildings, right next to the barn where the adorable Nubian goats bleat all day long. “Where else can you take a cooking class and look out and see a goatherd?” asks Knutzen as he eases bread dough out of a bowl, preparing to transfer it to a Dutch oven. The bread he’s making consists of four ingredients – flour, salt, water and yeast – and yields a crusty loaf that looks like it came from LaBrea Bakery. The key is letting the dough sit for 18 hours and then baking it in the Dutch oven, which seals in the moisture. The cover is removed for the last 15 minutes to create a perfectly rustic crust. As Shuldiner points out, the actual labor time is about 10 minutes.
While the loaf cools Klemens cooks up a fresh, tangy marmalade of Meyer lemons and blood oranges with Rugless’ assistance. “Marmalade is a little more forgiving” than jam or jelly, says Klemens, who teaches home preservation classes at Mother Moo. Like the majority of the people here, she is a certified Master Food Preserver, which involves a lot more than knowing how to make delicious jam. First you have to be accepted into the very competitive program, a Los Angeles extension of a course that originated at UC Davis. And volunteer work is key– as well as a commitment to teaching people to live independently.
For Shuldiner, teaching a class in making mustard – something that “everyone can relate to but nobody knows how it’s made” – became a vehicle to talk about food politics, “without being too heavy-handed.” And, like the bread, it’s easy as can be. The hardest part is probably waiting for three days while the mustard seeds soak in a brew of vinegar, Guiness stout and, in this case, espresso, plus ground fresh spices. “It’s about personalizing it,” he says, “and being able to flavor it in ways you cannot purchase. No matter how artisanal those jars are on that shelf I don’t think anyone’s making espresso cardamom stout mustard.”
As the sun gets lower the group migrates to the main house. Kent brews a pot of his own Plow & Gun Costa Rican coffee while Knutzen cuts hearty slices of bread. Rugless sets a plate of candied orange peel beside a goat cheese round from Rudicel and Putnam’s Mariposa Creamery. Sampling Mother Moo’s ice cream, Agajanian says, “When I first moved here from San Francisco I thought there was no food movement, and in a couple years it just blew up.” She is now working with Shuldiner to establish the Altadena Farmers Market in Loma Vista Park.
Opening several bottles of wine from his cellar, Rudicel notes that in today’s economy it’s about learning how to “have a little more on a little less.” Everyone in this room trades their goods and services – whether it’s a dozen farm fresh eggs or a hand with the dishes – and as a result they all eat and live better. “These parties are the moments where you express this,” he adds. “Sitting down with friends is where you find that richness.”
Institute of Domestic Technology: instituteofdomestictechnology.com