Lest we forget how blessed we are to live in the Bay Area, Lisa Brenneis has produced an affectionate documentary on the Monterey Market and owner Bill Fugimoto. The world premiere of “Eat at Bill’s” took place in the parking lot of the market Saturday night, the film projected on the side of a white truck, the audience sitting on folding chairs. Most of the people there were staff and friends of Fugimoto, who hosted a dinner beforehand in the covered area outside the entrance. (I wasn’t at the dinner; just heard about the screening from a friend.)
It’s a warm and engaging film that centers around Fujimoto, who’s always got a smile on his face and seems to live for buying and selling terrific produce. Brenneis recorded multiple scenes of Fujimoto interacting with the farmers he buys from. He greets them in the parking lot, eagerly opening the boxes on their truck like a kid on Christmas morning. He tastes the fruit and says, “This is really good. How much have you got?” After he buys everything on the truck he inevitably asks, “What else have you got?”
Fujimoto appears to be the biggest customer of any number of small growers, helping them survive by paying a premium for superior cherries, peaches, berries, corn, and much more. (Brenneis, who grows pixie tangerines and other citrus fruits in the Ojai Valley, is one of those growers.)
I’ve been a regular at the Monterey Market for 20 years, but never realized that half the chefs in the East Bay buy from there. We see Rivoli’s Wendy Brucker, Bay Wolf’s Michael Wild, Chez Panisse’s forager, and lots of other East Bay restaurant and bakery people, not to mention Judy Rodgers, who comes over from San Francisco to buy produce for Zuni.
We meet lots of regular customers too, who wax poetic about the produce and the experience of shopping there. A long scene toward the end focuses on Thanksgiving. Fujimoto explains the challenge of preparing for a holiday on which everybody cooks the same meal and it’s nearly impossible to stock enough celery, yams, and potatoes to supply the hoards who descend on the market. Fun shots of Thanksgiving shoppers reading their shopping lists—they’re all pretty much the same—and we meet the couple from the California/Oregon border who provide the monster pumpkins that anchor the mountain of pumpkins Monterey Market sets up each year.
But in the end it all comes down to Fujimoto, whose enthusiasm is infectious and who seems to delight in buying larger quantities of produce than his staff can believe they will be able to sell.