It’s all the rage for chefs and restaurant staff to plant their own gardens. Joe and Debbie Thomas of Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro and Wine Bar took the opposite route — they started with a farm.
They also took unusual paths to becoming Paso Robles farmers and restaurant owners.
Joe’s background includes teaching fine art at the high school and college levels, and being a wine buyer; Debbie had a successful career in corporate sales and marketing.
While living in Pasadena several years ago, the couple began visiting the Central Coast and came to view it as a great place to retire, in large part to indulge the passion for farming that Joe’s grandfather had instilled in him. After a newspaper feature story prompted them to revisit the area, the Thomases became the owners of the 10-acre parcel in east Paso Robles that would become the Thomas Hill Organics farm.
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“We first started planting about five years ago and seriously about three-and-a-half years ago,” said Debbie.
“Now, we’ve got about 800 fruit trees — anything you can grow here — but we specialize in greens such as black kale and Asian greens, and Joe also likes to grow unusual fruits like white pomegranate, pineapple guava and quince.”
Joe’s enthusiasm and green thumb quickly made the farm able to sell certified organic produce to local restaurants and to start a community supported agriculture program. The CSA program was, and remains, a success, but “we were still looking for a better way to highlight what we were doing,” said Debbie.
As a result, Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro and Wine Bar opened in January. Located downtown off an alley-type entrance near 13th and Park Streets, the layout of the unique eatery presented some challenges. The popular outdoor patio is subject to weather, so the Thomases installed several outdoor heaters and retractable overhead coverings. A built-in wood-burning pizza oven adds to the patio’s considerable ambiance, and the restaurant recently expanded into an adjoining indoor space, giving it more dining area and a private space for special events.
Julie Simon, previously at The Park, has been Thomas Hill’s executive chef since September, while Curtis Iaia handles the pizza duties at the outdoor oven. Both relish the restaurant’s farm-to-table attitude — especially the emphasis on fresh, seasonal fare from local purveyors. As a result of that philosophy, the menu at Thomas Hill changes frequently, but the Web site will give you a good idea of current offerings. Lunch dishes include appetizers, salads and sandwiches such as an heirloom tomato and cucumber gazpacho, pan-seared sockeye salmon on a salad of field greens with farm fresh figs, and a curried tuna sandwich with dill sprouts and avocado.
Brunch presents some tempting tastes you would expect — brioche French toast, poached eggs on rosemary olive bread, and quiche — or you can opt for something a bit different like a Charter Oak beef and chorizo meatloaf sandwich or a thin-crust pizza sprinkled with fennel sausage.
At dinner, the pizzas join such entrées as fire-roasted vegetable polenta, soy/ginger pork belly salad with Asian slaw, or hearty braised pork shank. If you end up with room for dessert, Debbie suggests the chocolate soufflé or a seasonal fruit creation like pear crumble with persimmon whipped cream.
The kitchen doesn’t have a microwave, and everything from the sausages to the sauces is house-made. It’s a no-short-cut approach, and the Thomases wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People are really enjoying the fresh food,” said Debbie. “They really appreciate it and can tell the difference.”