John Warren and Josh Walker: a farmer and a chef, respectively, are both creative, optimistic, fair-haired, lean men with names so kinda-sorta-interchangeable, a person almost starts to mix their stories into one brew. And maybe they should.
With circuitous paths that originated from the same spot and ultimately concluded just a little over a mile from one another other, Warren is best known as the man behind Spade & Clover Gardens, the vibrant, creative farm stand selling unique heirloom flowers, herbs, roots, and vegetables at the Charleston Farmers Market in Marion Square. While you know Walker as the man behind the city's favorite savory pancake — Xiao Bao Biscuit's okonomiyaki. But in many ways their lives and their work are intertwined. Here's how it happened.
Warren didn't exactly start out heeding a call from Mother Earth.
"I was working in Brooklyn as a mold maker/sculptor for the six years following my education at Pratt Institute," says Warren. "I took a vacation to see my cousin (and future business partner) at a remote farm on Whidbey Island, Wash. I had a respiratory infection at the time — which had become a common problem for me as I was always working in a dusty studio and was an avid city biker. But on that trip, the infection went away, and I felt a surge in creative energy I had not experienced in a while. So I shifted to building terrace and rooftop gardens in New York City. Ultimately, I took a farming apprenticeship on Block Island, R.I. When I finished in late October 2011, I had no desire to move back to NYC."
Walker also begins his story in Brooklyn.
"My wife and I were living — and eventually met — in New York," he says. "We got married at the Brooklyn courthouse, and then went back to work that same day. However, five months later, we decided to leave, and that's when we began to travel."
What happened next formed the foundation of Xiao Bao Biscuit, the restaurant he owns and runs with wife Duolan Li and business partner, Joey Ryan. During their seven-month journey, the couple ate their way across Asia, planting the seeds of what would eventually become XBB.
Correspondingly, Warren's affections lean toward a similar part of the globe, but for different reasons.
"My primary area of interest are crops that grow well longitudinally with respect to Charleston, as well as in the equivalent zone south of the equator," Warren says. "In other words, I focus on things that thrive in similar climates, which is what led me to Southeast Asian vegetables in particular. The things that farmers here struggle with — excessive heat, humidity, disease/pest pressure, and torrential monsoon-like downpours — are the things that vegetables in that part of the world have been cultivated to thrive in for thousands of years. The way I see it, my job as a farmer is to grow vegetables with as little negative ecological impact as possible. As much as anything else, the environment dictates what I grow. It's actually easier to farm this way, but you have to work at getting people to try new things."
When Walker and Li returned to the States, it wasn't Brooklyn that called them, but the Charleston area. "Although I'm not from here, I have roots here," Walker says. "My mother was born in Charleston, and her side has farmland in Ridgeville that's been in the family for over 150 years. We saw a lot of parallels with the South and Asian food: the climate, the rice and the produce.
"It was important for us to recognize Charleston and all the amazing people that work hard to make this place special. That's really the reason we stayed and opened Xiao Bao in Charleston, to be part of a community we loved. We started doing pop-ups in 2011 and immediately got a great response. We felt like people were missing or craving the same foods we were. I'm really proud of the work we do. I've never seen another restaurant like us."
Walker and Warren seemed to be on a predestined collision course, so perhaps it's not surprising that they met soon after launching their individual enterprises.
"John walked into the restaurant early on," Walker says. "It was during our first year, and we've continued our relationship from there. He's always had unique stuff. He's learned a lot in a short amount of time, and he's always experimenting and changing things. He continues to learn and improve. Moreover, he's the only person doing a lot of typically Asian ingredients like Chinese celery, ginger, galangal, turmeric, gai lan, different choi greens, wo sun (celtuce), Thai eggplant, taro, etc... We close the restaurant for a week or so around the holidays to travel, and I've brought him back seeds that he's then grown for us."
In turn, Warren says that Walker happened to be using a lot of ingredients he was interested in growing. "I really enjoy the food at XBB and the cultures they draw from. Granted, there was a feeling-out process in the beginning, as I came to understand the pricing and they determined how they wanted to buy produce. Also, my production wasn't consistent in the beginning, but they were really supportive and patient with me," says Warren.
And why not? With a notable devotion to his work, Warren doesn't just grow unusual and unique produce, he deeply cares for the land and what he nurtures from it. Anyone who's ever bought a small container of his vibrant orange turmeric, fiery hot chilies, or delicate Blue Hawaiian ginger already knows this.
"I have developed a real love for turmeric," he concurs. "It's probably my favorite plant to grow. It is one of the most medicinal and oldest vegetables in the world. I had a great crop last year, probably because of all the rain. When I pulled my first turmeric plant of the 2015 season in October, I got a whiff of that unmistakable aroma, and I could feel the anti-inflammatory qualities sort of fall all over my body. The nostalgia of that experience is one of the most lucid and sobering moments I can remember. I was in a bad mood at the time, and I could feel it dissipate, almost like magic. I eat it raw throughout the day now. It's like an all-natural ibuprofen/mood stabilizer."
But it's not all mood-enhancing, bumper crops of turmeric.
"There are many challenges to farming in the Lowcountry," John says. The variability in the weather can be maddening. Walker guesses he loses at least 25 percent of his crop, on average, due to pests and weather-related issues. Plus, bad weather at the farmers market can prove disastrous. Inconsistency in what chefs are using can throw him for a loop, too. "I'll hold something a chef has been regularly ordering, but then they won't buy it that week," he says. "So I find a new buyer... and then the first chef wants it again, and I've already sold it to someone else. Things like that happen a lot.
"When I first began farming, I was searching for a sense of purpose and authenticity, and maybe even a sense of security. Along the way, I've discovered that there is never any security of any kind. Day to day, the work is difficult, and it doesn't end until you stop. The farm is never finished. Even with small acreage, it takes discipline to not become jaded or burned out."
But all that being said, Warren still finds many wonderful things about being a farmer. "One is the connections I make with people at the farmers markets and the chefs who enjoy my produce so much. There's also the spiritual connection I feel with the planet when I work with the earth. There is nothing like feeling the urgency of the seasons," he says. "You want to wake up earlier and earlier as summer approaches, and then later and later in the winter. It constantly reminds you of how small and not in control you are. My perspective on everything has completely shifted since becoming a farmer, and I keep doing it because it is the best teacher I've ever had."
By Joshua Walker, Xiao Bao Biscuit
200 g. equal parts tumeric ginger galangal (chopped and oven roasted until soft)
75 g. sugar
100 g. hot sauce (we use aji dulce hot sauce we made and fermented last summer)
200 g. rice vinegar
1 egg yolk
1 cup canola oil
Blend everything but oil. Slowly pour oil in once everything has come together and slowly emulsify until thick.