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Betting the farm at Mario Batali’s Palazzo farmer’s market

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Citrus for sale from King’s Ranch White Hills in White Hills, Ariz. The farm sells to Mario Batali’s restaurants as well as Spago Las Vegas.
Photo: Sarah Feldberg

Just around the corner from the Palazzo casino floor, within sight of the last row of slot machines, a group of farmers offered their wares yesterday. There were baskets of zucchini, cartons of raspberries, pea tendrils, fresh apricots and cherry tomatoes, all glistening fresh and completely out of place in the casino.

From the farm to the Strip

Normally, the same fruits and vegetables don’t come into public view until they’re plated at one of Mario Batali’s three Las Vegas restaurants, Enoteca San Marco, Carnevino and B&B Ristorante. But recently Batali and his staff, with the help of California-based “intuitive forager” Kerry Clasby, have brought the farm Strip-side at the weekly Molto Vegas Farmer’s Market held in warehouse space on Dean Martin Drive. Yesterday, for the first time, the market moved onto the Strip.

Bet the Farm

Judging by the crowds filling paper bags with fresh fruit and sampling organic wines and locally-baked bread, the first Bet the Farm farmer’s market was a resounding success.

Standing in front of a table stocked with lemons, limes and other citrus fruits, Jim King of King Ranch White Hills in White Hills, Ariz. wore a red button down shirt and wide brimmed hat that looked more appropriate for an afternoon on the farm than a day at the casino. The retired steel fabrication businessman, who sells around $500 a week of his locally grown fruits, nuts and vegetables to Mario Batali’s restaurant and Spago, was offering up fresh picked goodies from his own property and some other farms that he works with.

“I needed something to keep me busy,” King said of his decision to purchase a five-acre ranch after he retired in 1998. “That was a mistake,” he laughed.

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However, things were going well for the late career farmer yesterday afternoon. Chefs Rick Moonen and Adam Sobel from RM Seafood had stopped by his table, promising to contact him for future orders, and casino employees and passersby were snapping up his grapefruits and oranges.

“I’m primarily here to meet some of the chefs,” King explained, “but by supplying the chefs we’re able to supply the public, too.

“This is all at restaurant prices,” he added. “Limes at two-bits a piece…otherwise you couldn’t even get this. … So many people say, ‘I haven’t had anything like this since I was on the farm.’”

That, explained Kerry Clasby, is entirely the point.

Clasby calls herself an “intuitive forager,” which basically means that she finds things.

“I dig around in the dirt. I go out to the farms, mushroom fields, even the sea at times or the forest, and I get the best tasting, highest quality hard-to-find produce for chefs.”

At the Palazzo her two tables boasted an array of fresh picked temptations. There were achingly ripe peaches and blackberries and more unusual items, like wild arugula, lambs quarters and fuerte avocados For a chef, working through Clasby is like visiting a one-stop shop of California farms; for a consumer it’s like gaining access to the world of high-end produce distribution that most people never see.

Clasby and her staff visit at least 10 farmers markets a week up and down the California coast. There’s the one she runs in Moorpark, Calif.; then Saturdays are spent at the Embarcadero in San Francisco and Sundays in Marin County. All told, Clasby said she puts around 1,400 miles onto her ’99 Chevy Suburban every week.

“People are dying for [the produce],” she laughed. “Mario Batali, the guy has tremendous vision.”

Next week, the farmer’s market will leave the casino and return to its regular Thursday schedule with things getting started at 11 a.m at 7485 Dean Martin Drive Suite #106. For now, we’ll close with a lovely, totally incongruous Las Vegas image: With slots clanging close by, Clasby selected a plump peach and leaned over a blue plastic bin, the juice dripping down her chin and wrists as she took the first bites. When the fruit was done she she dropped the remains into the bin below her. “Compost,” it read.

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Sarah Feldberg is the editor of Las Vegas Weekly magazine. A veteran journalist, Feldberg previously worked as the Weekly's web ...

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