Retired Dugoni dentist’s hands now tend the land and supply produce for The French Laundry
When Peter Jacobsen and his wife Gwenny bought an orchard and farm in Yountville 40 years ago, they had only one qualification to be farmers—“no fear of dirt.”
The retired dentist and adjunct faculty member at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry has since turned a hobby into a highly successful business.
The produce Jacobsen grows is served at some of the finest dining spots in Northern California, including The French Laundry, a three-Michelin star restaurant in Napa Valley, Bouchon Bakery and other restaurants owned by Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, his primary client.
“I am always amazed at how they can transform food into a delightful sensory and culinary experience,” Jacobsen said.
The produce he supplies is designed with chefs in mind. His 1.3-acre certified organic farm has 120 types of fruit trees, 15-20 types of tomatoes, and a variety of other plants depending on the season. More unique offerings include ficoide glaciale, a succulent, and mouse melon, a type of cucumber that looks like a tiny watermelon.
The figs, which he has in 12 varieties, are used at different levels of ripeness.
“Those three levels of ripeness have different culinary applications, so if somebody comes for a tour, there are 36 different tastings they go through to fully understand the dimensions a fig might have,” Jacobsen explained.
He didn’t always know so much about food and farming.
Jacobsen and his wife initially lived at the farm part-time while Jacobsen taught at the dental school. He was at Dugoni for more than three decades and ran a private practice until the start of the pandemic.
While working in San Francisco, they would travel to the farm on weekends. Sharecroppers worked the land in the beginning, but the Jacobsens learned from them and eventually decided to do it themselves.
With excess produce, Jacobsen started going to restaurants to see if they were interested.
“I would go in the back door of The French Laundry assuming that only the pastry chef would be interested in the figs and peaches, but then when the savory chefs saw what I was bringing in and the quality, they wanted some,” Jacobsen said.
The food quality and Jacobsen’s attention to detail and responsiveness (he can get delicate items such as squash blossoms to the restaurant within three hours of being picked) are how he has cultivated a more than 20-year relationship with the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.
Nicolas Bonamico, head pastry chef at Bouchon Bakery, said Jacobsen's enthusiasm sets him apart.
"Peter’s joy is felt by how he nurtures his land and cares for the people around him. Every time he shows up at the backdoor with a tray full of peaches, I know summer has arrived. Figs bring the promise of harvest, rain and cooler weather. The spirit Peter brings to his avocation is truly inspirational to my work as a pastry chef," Bonamico said.
Though Jacobsen still does some dental school presentations, he and his wife moved to running the farm full-time after retiring.
“She's a good thinker and I’m a good worker. So she goes, you should get that done and I go, ‘I’m on it,’” he said with a laugh, adding that he enjoys the meditation and exercise that comes with being outdoors.
He also sees a distinct connection between farming and dentistry.
“People sometimes will ask, ‘why do you do this?’ And I realized if I look deeply into what I am about, I am a caregiver. I give care to my patients, certainly care to my students, and now I give care to the farm and plants.”