Emily Fifer and Heather Sperling make me want to get in the kitchen and cook. The two women are the forces behind Botanica – a beautiful vegetable-centric restaurant (and market! and website!) on the east side of LA that was born out of the desire to nourish people to their core.
Each with a rich background in food – eating it, observing it, writing about it – Emily and Heather have mastered their vibrant approach to serving food. Botanica is an inspiring reminder of the magic that exists within the rituals and joy of creating and sharing a meal. On top of being vibrant, kind, and intelligent participants of the food scene, Emily and Heather are also passionate about community, inside their restaurant and beyond. Dream!
So while I’m really wishing I lived in LA right now, I’ll settle for taking pleasure in the interview and recipe they graciously shared with us today. I hope you love it as much as I do!
Describe Botanica in 3 words.
Nourishing, happy, healthful.
What were the most important characteristics you wanted Botanica to have?
We knew we wanted the space to feel like you were walking into someone’s home. Some of our favorite restaurants around the world provide that feeling of ‘I never want to leave this place. Can I move in?!’ To evoke that feeling, we incorporated texture, patina and warmth via paint, ceramics, personal pieces from our homes and lots of plant life.
In terms of our food, our biggest goal is to provide nourishment and abundance on the plate using California’s most beautiful vegetables (and smaller doses of sustainably caught and raised seafood and meat). We want diners to feel totally satisfied, like they’ve had a feast, but still feel great the next day. It’s entirely possible to indulge, as long as the food you’re indulging in is cooked with an undercurrent of healthfulness! We work every day to prove that hypothesis.
Lastly, we take the internal workings of our business — the health and happiness of our staff — into careful consideration. In order for us to be truly successful, we need to take care of the people who work with us, as well as the people we’re cooking for. We provide healthcare to our employees, we give a percentage of food sales back to our kitchen staff, we prioritize happiness and health, and work extremely hard to create an atmosphere of respect, support and openness.
Can you describe the two Botanica spaces – what are their objectives, and how do the coexist?
The restaurant is open all day, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, and brunch on weekends. Our goal is to provide delicious meals that are comprised mostly of vegetables, using the highest quality ingredients. If a guest walks away having a greater reverence for vegetables — especially someone who’s convinced they can’t be satisfied without meat — then we’ve done our job. We also want people to be excited and delighted by what they’re eating at every turn, whether it’s a salad at breakfast or a dessert that’s crazy indulgent but uses no refined sugar and alternative flour. In addition to the food, we strive to provide personal, genuine hospitality, which can only come from a staff that feels excited and engaged (luckily, ours does!).
The market at the front of the restaurant provides another way for guests to engage with the food we cook and the ingredients we use in the kitchen. We sell all of the natural wine and beer that we serve in the restaurant; some of the local produce that we buy from farmers each week: local sheep’s milk yogurt, cheese, eggs, bread and olive oil; and a host of Botanica-made items, including granolas (cacao-coconut and date caraway pumpkin seed), marinated olives, romesco, salsa verde, whipped tahini, beet muhammara, dukkah, chile oil and more. We want people to be able to provision for their own kitchens and cook for themselves! For that, they can head to BotanicaMag.com, where many of the recipes live.
We also have an incredibly special coffee and tea program, available to-go all day from the market counter. Our coffee comes from Coffee Manufactory (Tartine’s roastery operation, soon to be located in LA) and we source our tea from San Francisco’s amazing Leaves & Flowers. We’re extremely passionate about both producers and want everyone to learn about them and love them as much as we do!
What is the easiest way to take a simple dish to the next level?
Sea salt, lemon/lemon zest, and a delicious finishing oil are often all you need. We cannot stress the importance of proper seasoning enough! It makes all the difference in the world, whether it’s on an arugula salad or a slice of tomato or a piece of grilled fish. And sea salt, lemon and olive oil go with everything.
Seared Japanese Sweet Potatoes with Salsa Verde
3-4 Japanese sweet potatoes (these have purple or dark red-purple skin and white flesh)
Multiple spoonfuls of salsa verde (recipe below)
Zest of ½ lemon
Cilantro flowers, to garnish (if you can find them!)
For the potatoes:
Bring a pot of heavily salted water (it should taste like the sea) to a boil. Gently drop in the potatoes, lower the heat a tad, and simmer until you can pierce the potatoes with a knife, but not to the point where they’re falling apart / the skin is coming off. (This usually takes about 15-20 minutes, but varies depending on the size of the potato!) Remove the potatoes, rinse in cold water, let cool, then halve lengthwise.
Heat a few glugs of olive oil in a cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Place the potatoes cut-side down and sear until nice and caramelized — about 5 minutes. (The potatoes are great finished on a grill, too!) Arrange the sweet potatoes, cut-side up, by stacking them gently atop each other, like you’re building a beautiful potato mountain! Stir the salsa verde so you get bits of every component, then spoon it generously over the top. More is more here – there’s no such thing as too much salsa verde, in our opinions – so don’t be afraid. Season with sea salt, zest the lemon over the top, shower with cilantro blossoms (optional) and serve.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 large shallot, minced
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped (tender stems are okay, too!)
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped (ditto)
2 tablespoons capers, roughly chopped
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 cup delicious olive oil
Place shallots and sherry vinegar in a medium jar, stir, and set aside to soak for 15 minutes. Drain the vinegar (we think this gives just the right amount of acidity) and reserve (in case you want to add it back in for more acidity), then add the rest of the ingredients to the jar and stir well. Add a nice pinch of salt and a couple grinds of pepper. Stir again and taste: You’re looking for a balance of acid, salinity, and herby freshness. If it tastes too harsh, add a few more splashes of olive oil. If you want it punchier, add a bit of the vinegar back in. It’ll keep in your fridge for a couple of weeks, but the chances of it lasting that long are slim!
Do you have any kitchen / cooking / food rituals?
Morning rituals include Coffee Manufactory coffee (Emily) and Leaves & Flowers matcha lattes with cashew date milk (Heather), every day! General rituals: Dancing in the kitchen. Always cheers-ing before a meal, and again with every new round of drinks (the more cheers, the merrier!). Saying hello and thank you to every member of our staff and every person who comes to Botanica, every day.
How would you describe the food scene in LA, and what kind of influence do you want to have on it?
The food scene in LA is getting more vibrant and creative by the year. There are so many delicious spots around the city, both old and new, that speak to both its immigrant communities and a younger generation moving here from around the country. We love eating in LA (but even more than that, we love cooking in LA!)
Regarding influence: First and foremost, we hope to show that healthfulness has a place in a serious, ambitious restaurant kitchen. We use the absolute best products; we are damn serious about our food, our wine list, and our cocktail program; and we are not exaggerating when we say it is all good for you. We spent years documenting chefs and restaurants who wielded technique, presentation and creativity to beautiful result, but with no concern for the healthfulness or sustainability of the dish. We’ve also eaten our fair share of meals at “healthful” restaurants that are all-too-often austere, restrictive and uninspired. We believe, and we aim to prove, that it’s possible to have it all!
LA is a veritable Eden, and the vegetables and fruits that we’re able to buy locally never fail to amaze us. What better way to eat than to celebrate what’s beneath our noses? If we can inspire someone to get excited about produce, or to shop at the farmers’ market — that feels influential.
What do you hope people leave your restaurant with?
Full bellies, a bit of a buzz, a big smile, a Botanica tote bag full of market swag, and an intense yearning to come back the next morning for breakfast :).