Green Thumbs in the Kitchen
Sometimes local sourcing comes straight from the chef’s garden.
Name a chef who doesn’t source at least some fresh produce, meats, and other products from local, sustainable farmers and producers. As the fascination with fresh and local grows, it may be impossible to name such a chef. What might be easier nowadays is to name chefs and restaurants who have added their own on-site gardens and even small farms. This hyper-local trend seems to be catching on, but growing and managing a garden is no easy task. It requires a special skill set in horticulture that some chefs have taken upon themselves, or have partnered with others to adopt. Here’s how two chefs are managing their gardens.
Fresh in Florida
Chef Kevin Fonzo, owner of the 15-year-old K Restaurant in Orlando, has had a green thumb as long as he can remember, from when he was growing up in the Catskills of upstate New York. This talent came in handy when he opened his first restaurant and wanted to start growing herbs for the kitchen.
“The original restaurant location was at a strip mall, so I got in trouble for having a bunch of pots all up and down the sidewalk,” Chef Fonzo says. Now at a larger space in a freestanding house-turned-restaurant, complete with a wrap-around patio and converted parking lot, Fonzo has been able to expand his garden to include three planting beds and a 20-foot by 15-foot in-ground soil garden. About 15 percent of the menu comes from what’s grown right on site, and the garden is also aesthetically pleasing. The outdoor garden has been equipped with patio concrete and furniture to be able to hold receptions, garden dinners, and other events.
“We’re lucky to have four growing seasons so we plant year-round,” says Fonzo, who will grow hearty cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and other vegetables in autumn; beets, radishes, fava beans, string beans, snow peas, heirloom carrots, and broccolini in winter; and watermelon and cantaloupes come spring. Year-round he grows a variety of peppers, including hot ones and shishitos, plus a ton of herbs, from oregano to rosemary, basil, lemon verbena, and mint.
Chef Fonzo does it all himself with the help of the line cooks he’s trained to work in the garden—and who find it just as relaxing as he does to get out of the kitchen. “Part of the line cooks’ schedule is to weed for half an hour in the garden before washing up and coming inside,” he says. They also weigh in on what should be grown next. Most recently, the team experimented with kohlrabi and with Romanesco, a cauliflower and broccoli hybrid. They have also grown some fruit, mostly in the form of raspberry and blueberry bushes and citrus and fig trees.
When there’s extra harvest, Fonzo will make herb pesto sauces or a ton of Eggplant Parmesan, but other scraps, like egg shells and trimmings not used for stocks, get tossed into the garden’s compost pile. That collection is turned into the soil every few days to keep the dirt aerated (not stinky), rich, and fertile for replanting. Chef Fonzo makes sure not to add any bones or animal fats, because these can interrupt the composting process.
The garden is open for guests to visit, smell the produce, and pick and taste things when they are dining at the restaurant, and it is also available for local school children to visit. Nine years ago, Fonzo helped update the cafeteria program at a local school, and he partnered with Chef Alice Waters through her Edible Schoolyard program to enhance the education about gardening and eating local, healthy food. Now, students will take field trips to the garden and the restaurant, where they get to try the food.
The menu is flush with fresh picks. Think squash blossoms stuffed with Ricotta and shrimp, then lightly pan-fried. Roasted broccoli salad with lemon vinaigrette, braised collard greens for a local pork chop, handmade pasta with lemon verbena pesto, and white corn and fava bean succotash for fish. There’s even hot sauce made with garden-grown Scotch bonnet peppers and jalapeños as a side for oysters.
Gardening creates a good amount of work for Fonzo, but good in both terms of quality and quantity of time spent. “Worth it,” he says, and frankly, a pleasant way of life. “It’s a nice change of pace from being in the restaurant—to hang out in the garden, get some fresh air, and smell the lemon verbena. And then, to know you get to cook with all that.”
“A Playground for Chefs”
Executive Chef Francis Turck inherited the benefits of his on-site farm 10 years ago when he joined The Cliffs, a consortium of private clubs with seven properties in North and South Carolina. The Cliffs Organic Farm has been operated since 2014 by Craig Weiner, who changed the name from Broken Oak Organic Farm back to the property’s original name, a better indication of the community it serves. It has provided produce for its neighboring properties for more than two decades. Since then, the roughly 18-acre farm has become a respite for volunteers wanting to help out with the weeding and harvesting, as well as an educational destination for cooking classes, farm dinners, and other events.
“I pass by farms on my way to work every day—there’s the corn farm and the bell pepper farm, but Craig grows all kinds of produce, from different varieties of heirloom beets and tomatoes to baby kale, rainbow chard, Swiss chard, amazing turnips, and different colored carrots,” says Chef Turck, who runs the kitchen at The Cliffs’ Keowee Vineyards property in Lake Keowee, South Carolina.
On a weekly basis during the growing season, and even during the off-season greenhouse-growing periods, Chef Turck works with Weiner to decide what to grow as well as to learn what’s available so he can plan his menus.
“I don’t even have to place orders, necessarily,” he says. “I just drive over to the farm to see what he’s pulled out of the dirt and get inspired to cook based on what’s just been harvested. This is not the type of place I’m calling and asking for 20 or 30 pounds of this or that. It’s more like a playground for chefs.”
Weiner’s known for a few key staples that Turck uses to garnish plates and soups: microgreens and sprouts of all types, from sunflower to radishes. By mid-summer, Weiner will grow nearly 10 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, from Cherokee purple to sweet Hawaiian and bright gold tomatoes, which Weiner will then use in a simple Caprese salad or gazpacho. For a play on a shrimp cocktail, the chef has made a spicy tomato sorbet with a touch of horseradish.
At the peak of summer, chefs pick their produce from the farm on a casual, first-come first-served basis. “We all take as much as we can, and any leftover tomatoes or other vegetables we use for making sauces, canning, pickling, and other bulk production,” Turck says. Other produce gets sold to club members during weekly farm-stand hours.
Though the farm relies on Weiner and his volunteers for the bulk of the work, Chef Turck will still help out when he can—especially around harvest time. More directly, the chef oversees the vineyards that are out his back door, where muscadine grapes are grown and harvested once a year. These are primarily for use in cooking at the restaurant, and for some experimental winemaking by the members. “We make a barbecue sauce with the grapes for chicken that we smoke along with some of the vines,” says Chef Turck, who also made a muscadine sorbet and used the juice in other dishes. “You appreciate the food so much more when you get to be a part of the farm and watch things grow,” he says.