Bill Fujimoto is the unsung hero of the food revolution and a candidate for one of The Nicest People in the World. I remember sorting through cases of gorgeous produce at his shop, Monterey Market in Berkeley, which was a chef’s dream. Most chefs have to rely on their produce delivery, and what comes in can be less-than-optimal. But Bill opened up his walk-ins for everyone: I’ve even seen customers poking around back there along with chefs in search of the most extra-special fruit and vegetables.
Bill would often tell me to put something back that I’d selected, then emerge from the back of his truck with a big grin, hefting a few flats of something magical, like the sweetest rosy nectarines I’d ever tasted, or pears picked at their peak of ripeness with a rose-like aroma and a texture so meltingly-sweet, I resisted doing anything to them but encouraging customers to dive right in and dig out their sticky-sweet nectar-like flesh with a spoon.
Filmed by Lisa Brenneis, who owns Churchill Farms along with her husband Jim, whose Pixie tangerines we’d buy by the case lot at Chez Panisse and serve by the bowlful they were so sweet and perfect, Eat At Bill’s tells the story of Bill Fujimoto and the unique produce market he operates.
Many of the small farmers in Northern California pay gratitude in the film to Bill, for just about anyone could pull up to the market with a few flats of still warm from the sun, just-picked raspberries. He’d buy them all and within seconds, they’d be out on the stand for sale at a good price to customers…and within a few hours (or minutes) they’d be gone. Bill encouraged many small farmers to cultivate and grow less-commercial varieties of fruits and vegetables and if you’ve ever walked the aisles at Monterey Market, you might see giant wild puff balls, rice (still sold on the stalk!?), golden, black, red, and burgundy-colored raspberries, entire bunches of red bananas that look like they just fell off the tree, red and white frais des bois, cross-hybrids like limequats and orangequats, and unusual ethnic vegetables that are rarely seen outside of their native countries. Bill was doing specialty produce before it was chic or popular, and proves it doesn’t need to be expensive or out-of-reach to anyone who wants it (save for the ride to North Berkeley and dodging all the Volvos.)
Without Bill many of the small farms in California simply would not exist or have survived and some of the farmers are quoted in the film strolling through their farms or picking in their orchards while paying tribute. Zuni café chef Judy Rogers looks like she’s about to cry when talking about how influential and important Bill is to her success as a restaurateur and chef; Monterey Market inspires such devotion in people who shop there.
Through it all, the madness and crowds, Bill and his staff keep their good cheer in what Bill often describes as “wild chaos”—, an atmosphere he promotes and encourages. Bill notes that Alice Waters told him to just “find whatever’s good, then we’ll find a way to cook it”, which would be a challenge for most chefs. But he inspires that kind of confidence: If Bill recommends it, it’s good.
This is a loving, insider’s look at one of the most unique characters who with good cheer and the best of intentions, built a strong community and strengthened the bonds between farmers, chefs, and customers and I had a grand time revisiting the Monterey Market with Bill Fujimoto in this inspiring film.
You can watch an except of Eat At Bills here.
And read another review of the film over at Eggbeater.