For chef Brenden Blaine Darby, the benefit of small, organic farming is cut and dry
By Linda Koffman
When chef Brenden Blaine Darby was a 22 year old working in a Michelin three-star restaurant in Spain, in 2012, his dad sent him a care package that included an issue of Bon Appétit magazine. “Inside was a spread about a restaurant that had a relationship with a farm,” he recalls. “I felt like I needed to go learn from this person on the farm.”
That person was Cynthia Sandberg of Santa Cruz’s 22-acre biodynamic Love Apple Farm. The problem was, Sandberg didn’t normally mentor chefs on the farm. “I said, ‘Bring me on and you won’t regret it,’” Darby recalls. “And ever since me she’s only brought on chefs to be apprentices.”
These days, Darby resides in San Francisco but visits Love Apple weekly to harvest produce, wash and chop every part of the fruits and vegetables, put them directly in a freeze dryer, and let it all sit for 24 hours. The end result is No Bull Food: his line of freeze-dried, sustainably farmed and organic instant meals that have become popular at Burning Man and on hiking trails.
“It’s not complicated and is one of the more easy processes,” says the 27 year old, who has been working in restaurants since he was 14 and graduated from Johnson & Wales University culinary school. “I throw whatever I can in the freeze dryer and see if it works.”
No Bull Food is fully operational on the farm—prepared and hand-packaged on site—and sold strictly online at nobullfood.com. Each freeze-dried meal is dressed in recyclable materials and weighs seven ounces. Just add three cups of hot water to enjoy a $12 meal for two within minutes.
“The backpacking food scene hasn’t had a lot of non-GMO freeze-dried food products,” Darby says. “It’s a trip to spend time in nature but negatively impact it through all the food and packaging you’re buying to be in it. We want to make food that empowers people to be powerful.”
Following that initial eight-month apprenticeship with Sandberg and subsequent years traveling the world learning and working as a chef (he helped set up the esteemed Noma farm in Copenhagen), Darby returned to the Bay Area and grew increasingly disgruntled by the industry. “I didn’t like where [restaurants] were getting products from, how people were treated and the lack of connection between the farmers and the restaurants,” he says.
He and a friend brainstormed an ideal food company: “We were sick of the bullshit of the restaurant industry and wanted to see how we could improve the food system.” Hence, the idea for No Bull Food was born in 2015.
Since then, the company has sold 6,000 meals (primarily to Burning Man campers) and has given away an additional 6,000 meals through its So All May Eat (S.A.M.E.) donation program: For every meal purchased, a meal is given away. The first year saw No Bull Food’s organic meals distributed on Bay Area streets and last year the small company sent 3,000 meals to hurricane relief victims and volunteers in Florida and Texas.
Darby and his team, which can range from just him and his best friend Shane Granau to 10 people during busy Burning Man prep season, get nearly all veggies from Love Apple Farm. Supplementary produce is sourced from Soquel’s Everett Family Farms and Santa Cruz County farmers markets. Other than occasional salt and pepper seasoning, each No Bull soup or stew is all produce.
“The quality of food is better because we harvest right when produce is ready and then prepare and freeze dry it immediately on the farm,” Darby explains. “It’s perfectly dry but retains its color and 90 percent of its nutrients.”
The young entrepreneur adds of the No Bull benefits: “We use everything on the farm and don’t discard parts due to how produce looks, so we’re more efficient. [Our products are] also a way of getting people to support the local community they’re leaving for Burning Man and not just buying from Walmart.”
Simple feasts still require a lot of experimenting; every Monday and Thursday is test kitchen night for new recipes. Darby has been developing a green pozole soup he learned in Oaxaca, buckwheat ramen soup influenced by his time working in Japanese restaurants, heirloom vegetable chili using almost every type of vegetable on the farm, and an ancient grain macro bowl made with amaranth flowers.
What’s next? Darby would like to make No Bull Food mobile with a trailer system he can take from farm to farm. He’d also like to see multiple small organic farms armed with their own freeze-dried processing and packaging operation modeled after his, so that they, too, can make a living and be sustainable with little overhead.
“No Bull Food can be a good option for how to create a private business for the farmer and cut out the middle man of the supplier, packager and distributor, creating another direct-to-consumer program,” says Darby. “And the more small-scale farmers, the better.”