During the last several years, the crossroads business district at Washington Boulevard and Hill Street has gradually transformed from a sleepy intersection with a theological bookstore into a buzzing local thoroughfare of small boutiques and restaurants.
For the peckish local gourmandizer, there are options here. Anchored by Bacchus’ Kitchen on the west and Millie’s Cafe on the northeast corner, with Lavender & Honey Expresso Bar across the street and Lark Cake Shop just around the corner on Hill, you don’t have to go hungry in this neighborhood.
So how is it that I passed by Culture Club 101 so many times without realizing it was a full-service café and organic market, let alone the city’s most prolific fermentation lab? It wasn’t until new signage recently appeared in the front window advertising its “organic kitchen” that I realized the place wasn’t a vintage clothing store. That said, there are also hats for sale. More on that later.
Before opening at the present location in October 2016, Culture Club 101 was a private membership “club” on Wilson Avenue between Colorado and Green streets from 2009 to 2014. Products from the fermentation lab like fresh-brewed kombucha, jun (adapted from green tea and honey), kvass (a beet-based brew from Russia) and a constellation of cured sauerkrauts were on sale and a steady schedule of workshops and classes were offered for members. When zoning changed on the block, the health department insisted on the venue’s closure as a private establishment.
Owner, operator and chief fermentation specialist, Elaina Luther, 61, took a year to survey her options, before reconceiving the “club” as a public café and marketplace for independent craft food vendors, as well as a teaching kitchen for classes and workshops.
How did a massage therapist, instructor and doula discover a passion for fermentation and nutrition? As Luther explained, “It was a total accident.” Around 2008, she “stumbled upon” a book, “Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and Diet Dictocrats” by Sally Fallon Morell. Originally published in 1995 by Promotion Publications, the book argues for the importance of clean animal protein as well as probiotic fermentation for sustaining nutrition and good health, through the nourishment of the gut’s microbiome.
Suffering from symptoms of candida and perimenopause, Luther began experimenting with the book’s recipes and her symptoms cleared quickly. She began to tinker with the probiotic fermentation of fruit juice—pomegranate and apple—from the farmers market. (The probiotic process cultures the growth of healthy bacteria without the byproduct of alcohol.)
The juice vendor loved the effervescent results and encouraged her to offer samples. Soon, she was vending it herself.
Though as Luther explained, “I’m a teacher by trade. I come from a family of teachers.” Her presence as a vendor at the market was not really intended to sell product.
“It was to (educate) people to nourish your microbiome. Come to me and I’ll teach you how to do it. I was using it as a platform to teach classes, not to become what you see here.” She said this gesturing to the former dining area, which is now transformed into a minimart of organic products.
She installed herself at the original location on Wilson Avenue and inaugurated Culture Club 101 there in 2009. After five years, she attracted over a thousand members to the club, including some paparazzi-stalked celebrities. When the health department insisted on its untimely closure over zoning issues in 2014, Luther took a sabbatical and ultimately landed at the present location in what was the western half of the former Archive Bookstore.
By chance, Luther was reintroduced to commercial kitchen designer and architect Barbosa Polverini, whom she had met at The Chef Center on San Gabriel Boulevard, the commercial production kitchen that Polverini designed. “(Polverini) said, ‘I want to help you build a kitchen!’ So, then there was raising the money. I used all my savings. We took donations. I did two GoFundMe campaigns. We raised money that way. The community rose up.”
In all, over $150,000 was raised to complete the design and construction of the new kitchen, which is expansive and gorgeous.
Input and requests from former club members informed the development of the new venue.
“Everything I’ve done has been pulled by requests. (The members said) ‘We want a place where we can come and bring people and meet, sit, eat, break bread.’ We’re a community. People wanted a place to congregate.”
Luther’s daughter, Ivanna Steele, interrupts the conversation to hand me a slim bottle of house-brewed water Kefir, another probiotic formula that provided a quick blast of nutritious refreshment. Kefir, kombucha, jun, kvass? As Luther explains, “One of the big questions I get is ‘Which is the best one?’ There’s no best one. There’s diversity. You want to get probiotic foods from different sources. They’re all going to provide different bacterial strains.”
Luther routinely hosted a schedule of classes and workshops out of the store. These ranged from kraut-making to fasting to beekeeping. Classes scheduled through April were canceled. Since the advent of the pandemic lockdown, Luther has managed to conduct one Zoom class on kombucha-making but hopes to do more.
In March, she shut down the café operation initially, cleared the dining area and installed shelved kiosks for merchandise. The store worked with 20 independent partners, a number that nearly doubled to 40, when they expanded the market operation during the pandemic. In addition to preserved foodstuffs (including honey from nearby Zorthian Ranch), guests can find artisanal pottery, greeting cards, soaps, shampoo, face serums, sage bundles, CBD lotions and yes, even hats. Fermentation equipment and supplies, including starter cultures for kombucha, kefir, sourdough bread and yogurt are available.
Now running on a skeleton crew, in addition to her daughter Ivanna, Luther’s daughter-in-law, April Ordiway, assists at the counter. In the kitchen, the newly minted chef Adriel Gonzales, 19, began in August after an internship, prior to his graduation from the local Institute of Culinary Education.
The food? “We have the best avocado toast in town,” Luther said. That’s a bold claim. The secret ingredient? Sauerkraut. The bread is baked on-site. (Pro-tip: fresh-baked loaves are sold on Saturday mornings and usually sell out in an hour or so.) With the focus on probiotic nutrition, you might expect a plant-based menu but there’s also a rotisserie in the kitchen for roasting pasture-raised chicken from Harvest Gathering Farm in Ventura. Liverwurst and chicken liver pate are also available to take home. Have no doubt, everything is “beyond organic” as Luther likes to emphasize.
In addition to the “famous” avocado toast ($9.99), fresh salads—in half and full portion—range from egg supreme featuring pasture-raised eggs with avocado mayo and seasonal greens ($7.99/ $14.50) to a vegan cobb, involving heirloom black rice, pine nuts and cashew cheese ($8.99/ $16.50). Rotisserie chicken plates of either leg and thigh ($15) or breast and wing ($17) are accompanied by two side dishes, choosing from seasonal greens, rotisserie potatoes, sprouted lentils or heirloom black rice. By the way, everything comes with a serving of kraut. Certified “bird-friendly” coffee beans are ground here, available as cold brew or “Bulletproof” with a shot of MCT oil.
Whatever the uncertain future may hold, it seems Culture Club 101 may just be one step ahead. From the promotion of probiotics from its own fermentation lab and teaching kitchen to the small marketplace cooperative of local vendors and the inherently supportive community of its loyal fanbase, this place deserves to thrive.
As Luther says, “If the door keeps opening, I’ll keep walking through it.” Keep the door open!”