The Tom family is wowing chefs with Brentwood produce grown their own way.
A ripe Italian eggplant
Photographs by Mitch Tobias
At the end of Eureka Avenue in Brentwood, beyond the streets studded with housing developments and strip malls, rises a wooden house with soaring gables and flying eaves. Surrounded by farmlands, it looks like a modernized Asian temple to the gods of fertility. In a way, that’s precisely what it is. For this is the centerpiece of Brookside Farm, home of the Tom family: father Quong, mother Anne, and son Welling. Customers agree that this hardworking trio—without the help of employees or hired hands—grows some of the most exquisite produce in the Bay Area.
Beyond the house one finds a falling-down barn, the brook that gives the place its name, and 10 acres of land tended by farmers who know that good soil is more important to the quality of their produce than anything else. From these fields come fruits and vegetables so fine that farmers markets in Montclair and San Francisco and some of the area’s best-known chefs scuffle to get enough of them.
“Oh, not so many things,” says Welling, when asked how many crops they grow. “Heirloom tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, Japanese cucumbers, Asian pears, pluots, white peaches—that’s about all.”
But other crops keep sneaking into the conversation: garlic, onions, Romano beans, Italian eggplant, French plums, basil, bok choy, okra, persimmons, and chard. The list of crops grown by the Toms is as long as a farmer’s arm with hoe in hand. And it all started 33 years ago as a hobby.
That was when Quong and Anne decided to buy a farm and raise their three boys in a house surrounded by growing things. Anne’s parents descended from farming families in China, and Quong had a particular affinity for plants. As a boy foraging for mulberry leaves to feed his silkworms, he dug up the most exotic plants and brought them home.
The move to Brentwood was a sacrifice for Quong. As a chemist working for UCSF, he had a three-hour commute each way. Anne was alone most of the day and had to care for the children and the orchard—10 acres planted with almonds and walnuts. The family helped when they could. After harvest, Quong’s father spent days cracking the nuts, which Quong then sold at work and to nearby bakeries at 25 cents a pound.
Their first new crop was a vegetable known as gau gai or “matrimony vine.” It was meant for their own use, but it grew so prolifically that on weekends Quong and the children headed to San Francisco’s Chinatown to hawk it on the street.
Over time, the nut trees got old and died, leaving room for new crops. By the 1980s, the Toms were harvesting enough that Anne could take their bounty to the farmers market. They were passionate about what they grew; at one point, Quong tracked down the only nursery in the country that sold a peach variety he had discovered in Paris.
In the mid-1990s, Welling, their youngest child, graduated with a philosophy degree from UCLA and decided to return to farming. From his parents, he learned to study the fields and plants, and absorbed the information they had to share. Today, as the youngest member of the team, he provides the farm’s muscle, adding his own insights to those of his parents.
“They are very serious people,” says Paul Canales, executive chef of Oliveto. “They understand in some kind of seminal way being attached to the earth. They steward it.” His praise of the Toms’ San Marzano tomatoes, a favorite canning and cooking Italian variety, verges on the operatic. No one in the Bay Area, he insists, grows them so perfectly. “And they know how to pick,” he adds, explaining that they pick crops small, at their peak. Plus, they use the right amount of water for growth, without diluting flavor.
Bob Klein, Oliveto’s owner, understands why Brookside is organic but not certified organic. “Their standards are at least organic,” he says. “But they don’t have the piece of paper, which costs money and time. This is a problem for all kinds of people in the food world who put so much emphasis on a word. The word doesn’t say anything about their cucumbers.”
Quong has come up with many imaginative, fully organic techniques to rid his crops of pests. Last year, he bought a portable vacuum cleaner to suck up beetles from the cucumbers. Perhaps the beetles gummed up the works because this year he relied on his own fingernails, sweeping through the patch two to three times a day.
“Theirs is a very old-style farming, carried on from the dad to Welling,” says Kelly Degala, executive chef of Va de Vi in Walnut Creek and the newer Pres a Vi in San Francisco, who can’t get enough of the Toms’ tomatoes when they’re in season. “You can only respect what they’re doing.”
Like Canales, Degala notes the family’s humility. The Toms’ modesty and a tendency to downplay their accomplishments mask their high level of education. Not only are they profoundly in touch with the land, but they have analyzed their experiences, drawn lessons, and developed creative solutions to their problems. An attentive ear picks up the wisdom beneath the humble surface—wry comments from Quong, emphatic statements from Anne, articulate observations from Welling.
“For what they do, no one is doing it better,” says Canales. “They’re impeccable.”
Ask Welling, the philosophy major, about his philosophy of farming. “Oh, I don’t really have one,” he says, looking down shyly.
Prod him, though, and he says, “I just try to understand each thing. I want to understand what each crop or organism requires. It’s the same for the farmland. It has a life of its own. I try to respect that.”
Photographs by Mitch Tobias