Big things are afoot in Ojai, as one of the Ventura County city’s most recognizable food faces prepares to open a broad new project with some star power attached. Kate Pepper, an Ojai native who rose to prominence by baking some seriously Instagram-famous breads and pastries for legions of weekend fans, will join forces with a trio of cooks, operators, and growers to open a Burmese restaurant this fall called the Dutchess at 457 E. Ojai Avenue, in the glassy former home of the original Ojai Bakery. The cafe, bakery, and restaurant is meant to be a new beginning for the entire team and for the plot of land it sits on, which has housed a restaurant in one form or another for well over 125 years.
Pepper announced the project to her more than 40,000 Instagram followers earlier this October, and a few familiar faces appear in the photo with her. Perhaps the most notable is Zoe Nathan, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Rustic Canyon Family restaurant group, Santa Monica’s prominent restaurant consortium. She moved to Ojai just before the pandemic with her family to begin growing food and giving back to the agricultural community that has been so important to her over the years. Ingredients from her new home, 50/50 Farms, will — in conjunction with many of Ojai and greater Ventura’s existing growers — appear on menus for the Dutchess when it opens later this winter.
“We came here with no intention of opening a restaurant,” says Nathan when reached by phone. “We just wanted to learn how to grow food.” Along the way, the family found themselves aligning more and more with the farmers, makers, and creatives of Ojai, which has been a haven for artists and spiritualists for decades and remains a popular weekend getaway for Angelenos.
“We started to slowly build this community,” says Nathan of her work on the farm and in the hospitality world of Ojai. “We started to produce a lot of food, and we were bringing it down to LA, and that’s annoying,” she adds with a laugh. So instead, Nathan approached longtime friend Pepper and two others about collaborating on a project that would keep their food, and the food from other farms in the area, in the Ojai region.
The two other big names behind the Dutchess are Kelsey Brito, formerly the head pastry chef for Milo & Olive who had relocated to Ventura County, and Saw Naing, the chef from Tallula’s in Santa Monica who had helped to elevate that restaurant to new heights by infusing dishes with his own Burmese/Indian heritage. Naing left Tallula’s in October 2020 to plot his own standalone restaurant, which now coincidentally has meant a return to collaboration, though Nathan is quick to note that this is an Ojai project first and foremost, in no small part because of the deep connections (Pepper is an area native and all parties live in Ventura County) to the area.
“My deepest dream is that we can show people how to create closed-loop systems” between agriculture, restaurant operations, and diners, says Nathan. “We’ve forgotten the farmer, the people, the customers. Without all of that, it doesn’t work.” The Dutchess, she envisions, will act as a regenerative ecosystem all its own, where farmers supply the restaurant at a sustainable scale; the restaurant supports small farmers and offers something interesting to local diners; and customers spend their money where they live, elevating those owners, workers, and farmers along the way.
There’s still work to be done, and no firm opening date just yet, but Nathan believes that the Dutchess could become a staple of the Ojai restaurant community for years to come. It starts with talent from people like Pepper, Naing, and Brito, and a willing local audience eager to buy into what Ojai is growing.