Eat At Bill’s: Bill Fujimoto of Monterey Market in Berkeley

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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.

Churchill Farms site has lots of information about tangerines, mandarins and other citrus.
You’ll find ordering and screening information here as well.

8 comments

  • Thank you David. I’ve been reading your blog for some time but this is my first post. I went to the site and I’ve pre-ordered the DVD! Thanks for sharing this info. The other DVD that’s good is, The Cheese Nun.

  • David,
    Thank you for writing this post! I grew up near Monterey Market and shopped there with my mother on a regular basis. I will definitely check out this movie!

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  • Yes, I remember well those upstart food co-ops while I was attending art school near Berkeley a while back then, and I’m supposing that Bill was part of that trend.

  • I should get this for my dad. For 25 years he lived a couple blocks away from Monterey Market, and my childhood would have most likely been a barren, nutrition-free wasteland without Bill’s incredible produce tempting me out of my junk food existence every once in a while.

  • Melissa: It’s hard to sum up what Bill and Monterey Market mean to those of us who spent years shopping there, and this film really brought back a lot of great memories of him.

    I loved watching it and highly recommend it to anyone who’s ever shopped at Monterey Market, or wants to see a real unsung hero (in my book) of California Cuisine, as well as someone who puts their ideals into practice. Not to be trendy or to get famous, but simply by doing what makes him so obviously happy: uniting the fruits and vegetables from small farmers with chefs and customers. And pleasing us all.

  • Talk about coincidence!

    It’s been a while since I dropped by your blog, but decided to check in today, just after returning home from the Monterey Market with bags full of three different kinds of apricots, Dapple Dandy pluots, Frog Hollow Farm peaches and some gorgeous nectarines. That’s not to mention the tiny mixed baby lettuces bought in bulk, black figs (I passed on the Kadota and Turkey versions) and…and…

  • Oh, I practically grew up at Monterey Market in the 80s! We went there at least once a week to stock up on wonderful exotic fruits and veggies. I remember the monstrous orange juice squeezer always pumping at the front of the store, and the huge piles of fresh spring lettuce mix. And its close proximity to the Fish Market and the coffee and cheese shop meant one-stop shopping. Thanks for bringing back the memories!