Restaurant gardens cut the distance from harvest to plate.
Serving farm-fresh produce is a goal for many restaurants. Then there are the overachievers whose veggies spend mere hours traveling from garden to plate—sometimes with a journey of only a few hundred feet.
Does it really matter? Absolutely, says Natasha Kwan, owner of Frida’s Deli. “There is nothing quite like eating straight from harvest. I am very excited to provide customers this experience, as you can truly taste the difference.” Kwan and her partner, Rick Roloff, are in the process of adding 800-plus hydroponic growing pods to the restaurant to grow leafy greens and herbs for salads, sandwich toppings, juices and smoothies.
Most restaurants use the good old low-tech solution: dirt, which also does the trick. Sometimes it’s a large plot, like at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood or Cafe Osage in the Central West End. More often, chefs make do with whatever space they have or get creative, like Jamey Tochtrop, executive chef at landlocked Stellina in South City. He volunteers his own yard to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and squash along with thyme, tarragon, lemongrass and lots of basil. This year, his colleague Scott Mercurio lent his yard to the effort as well, doubling total capacity.
“As a cook, it’s pretty fun to go out and pick something and three hours later have it on the lunch menu,” Tochtrop says. Stellina’s fresh pasta selections change daily, but two menu items are almost guaranteed come August: a cucumber-melon salad and a classic Italian Caprese with house-made mozzarella. The Caprese salad sold so well last year that it helped inspire the 150-plant, eight-variety tomato garden—not to mention the fact that Stellina was formerly spending $400 a week purchasing the tomatoes from outside sources. If there’s a surplus, Tochtrop might freeze some tomatoes for sauces. But excess typically isn’t a problem for restaurant gardens, even with high-yield crops like tomatoes, eggplant and squash.
Some chefs, like Kevin Nashan at Sidney Street Cafe, have turned their gardens over to professionals—in his case, Justin Leszcz of Yellow Tree Farm—to help boost yields and streamline the work. As a bonus, Nashan is able to offer unique herbs, including saltwort, borage, hyacinth, Aztec sweet herb, Vietnamese coriander, savory, hyssop, bee balm, rue, salad burnet, lovage and toothache plant; plus heirloom vegetables like myoga ginger, sunchokes, Stewart’s Zeebest, Clemson spineless and white velvet okra, delicata, and Hubbard and crookneck squash; and finally a healthy selection of eggplant varieties including Guadalupe, Burkina Faso, cannibal tomato, Arumugam’s, Chinese and scarlet.
At Schlafly, the pros are on staff. “If I can piss off the chefs for bringing in too much, I’m doing my job,” says Jack Petrovic, head Gardenworks gardener. A bumper crop of white Japanese turnips was one such rare triumph. In addition to the 400-plus seats at Bottleworks, his garden also supplies the Tap Room Downtown. Most of what Petrovic harvests finds its way into daily specials, thanks to the unpredictability of urban agriculture.
At Cafe Osage, on the other hand, David Kirkland can almost guarantee Tomato Benedict with creamed corn sauce on the menu by late June or early July each summer. The signature dish includes an English muffin topped with two poached eggs (often from the restaurant’s Clarksville farm) and garden-fresh tomatoes, plus a cream cheese-blue cheese mixture flavored with tarragon and basil from the rooftop herb beds. Kirkland meets with his grower to talk about which varieties have done well in the past, but he knows it’s a toss-up. “Although young and fresh is good,” he says, “for restaurants, it’s all about the quantity.” If he gets only five or 10 pounds of green beans in a week, for example, he can’t even run a special. Then there’s the flip side of the coin: overabundance. “We’ll get a ton of okra, and there’s only so many okra specials you can run,” he says. That sheer unpredictability poses a challenge that Kirkland loves. “It makes me have to think faster on my feet.”
Photo credit: Kelly Wright