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Guided by voices: 'Intuitive forager' Kerry Clasby

'Intuitive forager' Kerry Clasby's hunt for perfect produce changed her life. Now she wants to change the way Las Vegas eats

Bet on the Farm farmer's market doesn't look like much from the outside. Tucked into a prosaic strip of industrial park on south Dean Martin Drive, it's easy to miss.

Inside, though, it's a cornucopia of good things. Newly harvested pistachios from Pahrump. Lovely bunches of organic herbs grown in Boulder City. Vegetables from an agriculture co-op in Overton. There are plump, sweet dates from just over the California border and juicy apricots from about a hundred miles away in Arizona. Bright produce is everywhere, and the aroma of whole vanilla beans competes with the smell of fresh-roasted coffee beans.

Kerry Clasby's California Family Farms anchors the market, occupying the largest group of tables at the back of the warehouse with an assault of exotic produce: morels and truffles from Oregon, fiddlehead ferns and stinging nettles, pea tendrils, torpedo onions, tiny Tokyo turnips, black radishes and other obscure delicacies from all over California and the Pacific Northwest.

Bet on the FarmClasby is Bet on the Farm's secret weapon, a dynamo with long silvery hair and a megawatt smile. She calls herself an "intuitive forager," a modern hunter-gatherer in an SUV who drives about 1,500 miles a week, searching for the world's best food. Chefs all over the West rely on her to provide provender that can't be found anywhere else. "Bet on the Farm really is the finest farmer's market in the country," she says. Chef Mario Batali and restaurateur Joseph Bastianich - of B&B Ristorante, Carnevino and Enoteca San Marco fame - launched the farmer's market in their warehouse in June 2009. It wasn't long before Clasby became a fixture at this mini-mecca for both foodies and chefs. "I go to the best farms and markets and bring only the best of what I find here," Clasby says. "It has the best-tasting, most colorful and most unusual varieties of any market, anywhere."

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She should know. She's been all over the country - not to mention up and down the corporate ladder. Clasby is a Boston native who studied political science at Boston University before doing corporate stints at IBM and Xerox. She lived in Las Vegas during the '90s, where she raised her family, grew heirloom tomatoes and ran a hospitality-industry business with her husband. She became a vegetarian, started learning more about organic and sustainable agriculture and began developing the philosophy that guides her to this day. After her marriage ended, she relocated to California. To make ends meet, she began foraging for wild mushrooms, which she sold alongside her tomatoes at local markets. Soon, she says, chefs were coming to her and asking for more. Clasby had discovered her talent.

"I realized I had a talent for tasting and finding," she says. Her method in the field is unorthodox, relying on intuition to ferret out the finest foods. "There's a small, still voice within that draws me to some farmers, some farm, to a particular time and place," she explains. Though she doesn't identify with any one religion, she says she believes in what Christians call "God-given leading." "If I listen closely, a wordless knowing is there. I follow that."

"It's amazing to watch," says Sarah Clark, Clasby's friend and a crew member at California Family Farms. "To see it is incredible. There is a flow. That's the only way I can describe it."

Bet on the FarmAddicted to fresh
Whatever her method, the results are indisputably delicious and abundant. California Family Farms handles more than 350 varieties of fruits and vegetables on any given day, which go to a network of chefs willing to pay a premium for her produce. On this market day, Clasby is a blur, giving directions to the volunteers who man her tables and encouraging customers to sample her wares.

She gives me an Afghani mulberry, which looks like a purple, torpedo-shaped raspberry and tastes like ripe peaches and cotton candy; it's easily one of the best-tasting things I've ever put in my mouth. "I'm addicted to them," Clasby confides. Knowledge of wonderful things like this is basically her job description. "I get to find and share the best things."

What started out as a search to find better food for her family has turned into a successful small business. But, more than that, it has become a vision. "The chefs I work with know my priorities," she says, explaining that chefs who work with her should share her commitment to organic and sustainable food. She's even asked chefs if she could poke around their kitchens, to better gauge their suitability as clients.

"Energy is in everything," she says. "Food has energy, chefs have energy. When you're in a kitchen with someone yelling and screaming, it goes into the food. Evangelical Christians talk about being equally yoked. It means that you should find people who share your beliefs and goals. That's what I want with my chefs."

A certain good energy does permeate the atmosphere at Bet on the Farm. There aren't many places in Las Vegas where you'll hear a line like, "Come by and marvel at the compost heap," uttered with complete sincerity.

"People come in here and they're just happy," says Doug Taylor, B&B Hospitality's Executive Pastry Chef and their man on the ground at Bet on the Farm.

For all the good vibes, the market is a byproduct of B&B's original mission, which is to get the best produce possible for their restaurants.

"B&B doesn't make French cuisine," Taylor says. "We can't hide our ingredients beneath thick sauces and creams. True Italian cooking is about putting a fresh, quality ingredient on a plate and letting it speak for itself." When B&B first opened its restaurants here, Taylor says it had a hard time finding produce that met its standards. "We went through every vendor in the city, and we felt limited by them."

In desperation, the restaurateurs approached farmers in Northern California to provide them with fresh produce, but none was interested in the long commute. A few of them, however, did point to Kerry Clasby.

"When we met Kerry, it was an intuitive junction," Taylor says with a smile. "We started the market to get more chefs involved but we discovered that lots of local people wanted better food." So they approached Clasby. "We asked her, 'How would you feel about driving a truck down here and starting a market?' And she said, 'Great idea!'" Her California Family Farms would act as the anchor, while the rest of the space would be given over to nurture local providers.

Here and nowhere else
Nurturing locals has paid off for B&B, Taylor says. "When we started, we had two local providers. Now we have 47."

That ever-expanding list of locals supplies B&B's restaurants with everything from quince to grass-fed beef; it also keeps Bet on the Farm a step ahead of other markets.

"There's local food here that you won't see anywhere else," says Taylor. That's because while typical farmers markets charge for table space, B&B Hospitality Group does not take a cut from their farmers.

Since the market is held in B&B's warehouse and operated by volunteers from B&B, they have the luxury of not needing to charge. Sure, success could cause them to move - the crowds seem to grow larger each week - but Taylor says B&B has no plans to pack up. The no-frills location keeps the focus on the farmers and their products.

As for Clasby, she has no plans to slow down either. She's always looking for new, good things to discover. She also wants to get California Family Farms more involved with the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, which introduces recently returned veterans to food production and farming. She's also involved with a farm program for at-risk kids in Santa Monica.

Would she consider coming back to Southern Nevada full-time?

"I've had some of the most profound spiritual experiences in the desert called Las Vegas, she says. "I love it and I hope to someday have a place there."

A place to live or a place to do business?

"Both!"

Bet on the Farm farmer's market takes place 11 am.-1 p.m. Thursdays at 7485 Dean Martin Drive, Suite 106. Info: www.betonthefarm.com
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