Close as can be: Chefs growing their own

Noble American Cookery executive chef Brinn Sinnott works the beds between the HVAC units and skylights in the garden on roof of the restaurant after planting new herbs, fruits, tomatoes and greens. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Noble American Cookery executive chef Brinn Sinnott works the beds between the HVAC units and skylights in the garden on roof of the restaurant after planting new herbs, fruits, tomatoes and greens. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 09, 2011

One in an occasional series on the demand for locally grown food and its impact on our region.

A decade ago, it was de rigueur to augment the description of a dish on a restaurant menu with the name of the farm that provided the precious ingredients.

But when Wendy's (yes, the burger chain) declares it has followed "the farm-to-table philosophy from the get-go," you know the food movement has shifted from its core.

We've gone way beyond farm-to-table. Now it's not good enough for a chef to buy from a local farm. The chef has to have a farm.

From the city to the suburbs, restaurants are touting their "homegrown" nature, sending a message to customers - a vastly exaggerated message, in some cases - that the menu is driven by what the restaurant is growing.

Just as with home gardeners, some farm-driven chefs are growing garnishes while others are building main dishes around the vegetables they've planted.

The menus at Mitch Prensky's Supper restaurant were farm-driven long before one of his partners started Blue Elephant Farm in Newtown Square in 2009 to grow exclusively for Supper.

"Now every piece of lettuce and every herb comes from the farm," Prensky says.

A staff of six at Blue Elephant grows "every imaginable vegetable," plus laying hens, Nubian goats (for their milk), and sheep (for cheese-making). And they're nurturing a herd of cattle.

California foodie Alice Waters is his role model, Prensky says, and former White Dog restaurateur Judy Wicks deserves credit for being among the first to elevate the status of growers by putting their names on her menus.

But he thinks some restaurants are going too far in their claims.

"The last three restaurants that opened in Philadelphia have 'farm' in the name," Prensky says. "It's becoming disingenuous."

For years, Aimee Olexy has grown vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fruit in a "fairly tiny" garden outside her Chester County home for the meals at Talula's Table. Her new Talula's Garden also draws from her home farm, as well as from pots outside amid the wisteria, and under grow lights inside.

"Having grow lights in a restaurant is unheard of," says Olexy, who is also tilling soil on three acres in Chester County owned by a friend. What she can't grow, she buys selectively from the best food crafters.

And she especially favors saving money and the environment by growing her own flowers for the table.

"Cut flowers are expensive and many come from as far as Holland, so if you can grow your own, that's better."

The Yardley Inn in Bucks County found it could have a vegetable garden that was beautiful, too.

For years, the inn made the most of its location along a quiet section of the Delaware by keeping a charming English boxwood garden where patrons often posed for family snapshots.

The ornamental shrubs and gravel paths made for pretty pictures, "but they were not doing much for us," says Eben Copple, executive chef there these last four years.

By us he means the kitchen, which now more than ever is the soul of a restaurant.

Eager to grow his own chicory and carrots, chives and cilantro, Copple persuaded proprietor Robert Freed to remove the boxwoods and replace them with a kitchen garden in raised beds.

Copple is already crafting salads with the raspberry sorrel he's growing, and the bar staff use the fresh bronze fennel in mixed drinks. But as a well-kept vegetable garden, it also meets today's standards for what it means to be attractive. Patrons still take pictures there.

Meanwhile, Grace Wicks (yes, Judy's daughter) of Graceful Gardens designs growing spaces for Center City restaurants, as well as residential use.

She put in a rooftop herb garden at the Four Seasons a few chefs ago, and still tends the vegetable garden she put together on the roof of Noble restaurant on the 2000 block of Sansom Street.

At Noble, she works side by side with executive chef Brinn Sinnott, who worked at the Four Seasons, Lacroix, Supper, and Amada.

Sinnott sees the on-site garden as "an opportunity to work in reverse," an alternative to designing a menu and then ordering ingredients.

"It changes the direction of your thinking," says Sinnott, who is on the roof every day to pick ingredients.

He has used the marjoram in a pesto with Swiss chard, served with halibut and a truffle lovage sauce; more marjoram made it into his Oaxacan Chileajo salad.

Wicks planted nasturtiums among the vegetables to attract beneficial insects, and Sinnott plans to use the nasturtium flowers and leaves in salads and make "capers" from the seeds.

Lemon balm and lemon verbena will go into ice creams; lavender mint will go nicely atop grilled octopus with salsa verde, served with a pineapple and jicama salad tossed with lavender mint.

"Everything up here will get used for something," says Noble co-owner Todd Rodgers. "The roof cannot produce enough to sustain the entire menu, but customers like to know we're growing here."

In West Cape May, an annual Lima Bean Festival (this year, on Oct. 8) pays homage to the region's agricultural heritage, when this was purported to be the Lima Bean Capital of the World.

Now beans are sprouting there again, at Curtis Bashaw's Beach Plum Farm.

Bashaw, whose Cape Resorts Group owns six hotels, among them Congress Hall, and five restaurants, including the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia Hotel, bought the land in 2007, sprinkled his 2008 menus with homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers, and was pleased with the customer reaction.

"That really encouraged us to expand the operation," Bashaw says. "This season we'll produce all our produce in July and August on own farm."

Much of the 65-acre site is marshland, Bashaw said.

Farm manager Jaime Alvarez is making the most of the remaining 20 acres, tending the fruit trees, vegetable rows, and the livestock. Pigs are on site, sheep are coming, and Alvarez is building what sounds like a luxury coop for his Long Island Red chickens.

You want all-natural? Vegetables here are fertilized with manure from Cape May's horse-and-buggy-ride operations, and food waste from Bashaw's restaurants goes into the compost.

Alvarez planted peonies and hydrangeas to grace the hotel and restaurant vases. And, in addition to honey from hives here, he is growing stevia, the alternative all-natural sweetener.

"We're delivering on the promise of farm-to-table," Bashaw says.

Meanwhile, guests are welcome, make that encouraged, to pack a picnic and bicycle or drive to the farm for a relaxing afternoon. A hammock awaits them, and there's an old-fashioned porch swing hanging from a tree near the strawberry patch.

Bashaw is not a fanatic about using only locally grown products: "We serve iced tea with lemon, neither of which are grown locally."

Still, he says, "it's easy for us to craft a summer menu with what we grow.

"That's the answer to running a resort complex in the 21st century," he says. "Give them what they want."

For Cary Borish, whose Marathon restaurants are sprinkled conveniently through the city, a farm is a vehicle for community change. He started a nonprofit foundation this year to run Marathon Farm on a city-owned vacant lot in Brewerytown.

Some rows are set aside for residents, while crops planted in another section will be sold to the restaurant and at a farm stand on the site.

Charlyn Magdaline, who lives in the neighborhood and homeschools her two oldest children (ages 2 and 6), organizes learning opportunities at the farm for children who live nearby. And Elissa Ruse was hired to "help the restaurants go green."

Jose Garces, revered as a James Beard Award and Iron Chef winner, is a newbie in the grow-your-own field. He plans to make his new 38-acre Luna Farm in Bucks County a country home for his family and a source of fruits and vegetables for his growing restaurant empire (he has seven now and is planning an eighth).

All in good time.

"This season, we'll get the soil ready with nutrients, have a fall harvest, buy a tractor and other implements," Garces said, his goals growing with every breath.

"We may get in an apiary; I would love to do chickens with mobile coops to help fertilize the ground and maybe get some nice eggs. If I can get all that accomplished this year I'll be pretty happy.

"It's a learning process for myself and my staff," he says, referring to both the kitchen and farm staff.

In Year 2 of what Garces hopes will be a long-term project, he anticipates putting in a greenhouse and a canning factory. Butchering, cheese-making . . . the possibilities excite him.

"I think the quality of what's available from local growers now is good, but you end up paying for it," Garces says. "I try to get the best ingredients you can get your hands on - that's been my M.O. for my whole career.

"Not to take anything away from our vendors, there are a lot of intermediary people to go through, so getting it directly from the source cuts down the costs."

Growing your own, he says, "is something that goes hand in hand with being a chef. Product is a big part of what we're selling at a restaurant."

"I think this is a trend that will probably take off. It makes a lot of sense."


Lavender Vinaigrette

Makes 1 cup

1 teaspoon lavender or wildflower honey

1 1/2 cups balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon fresh lavender leaves

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon fresh lavender flowers

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

1.   In a medium saucepan, cook the honey over moderate heat until bubbling. Add the vinegar, thyme, and lavender leaves and simmer over moderately low heat until reduced to ¾ cup, 8 to 10 minutes.

2.   Strain and let cool slightly. Whisk in the oil, 1 tablespoon filtered water, and season with salt and pepper.

3.   Add the lavender flowers just before serving.

4.   Serve over lettuces from your garden!

Per serving (1 oz.): 43 calories, no protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 3 grams fat, no cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.


Reach staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211, dmarder@phillynews.com, or @marderd on Twitter. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder.

 

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