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How Does Your Restaurant Garden Grow?

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By Judith A. Stock July 2013 Sustainability

Situated in Nantucket Island’s historic downtown district, American Seasons restaurant is known for its hyper-fresh ingredients and seasonal culinary dishes.

“At American Seasons restaurant, we’ve had a garden for 10 years. My wife, Orla Murphy, loves to grow plants and vegetables, so it was a natural occurrence that happened for our business,” says Chef Michael LaScola.

But should the restaurant garden run out of homegrown produce, the chef’s backup plan is to use small, local Nantucket farms and producers to supplement his supply.

According to the National Restaurant Association’s culinary forecast, hyper-local restaurant gardens, locally grown produce, and environmental sustainability are among the top 10 most popular themes for 2013.

Not far from Nantucket, another innovative restaurant garden thrives. A block off the beach, Dauphin Grille in Asbury Park, New Jersey, offers patrons sustainable, farm-to-fork dishes in a comfortable and relaxed bistro atmosphere.

“With the help of friends and employees, I established a 2,000-sq.-ft. garden two years ago,” says Marilyn Schlossbach, owner and executive chef of Dauphin Grille. “I realized I wanted more flexibility in sourcing produce to be able to make creative, seasonal changes to the restaurant’s menu.”

Schlossbach says before the garden was put in place, the restaurant had participated in the Jersey Fresh program that helps farmer’s alert consumers about the availability of fresh produce grown in New Jersey.

There are community-building aspects as well. Not only do restaurant gardens supply fresh produce to chefs, they also provide many teachable moments to youth in the area.

As Chef LaScola pointed out, “We support the garden at the local school through the Sustainable Nantucket organization by funding growing beds. The hope is that our young chefs and students on Nantucket will see the positive flavor benefits of locally grown food.”

Cultivating the next generation of gardeners with local hands-on programs can teach children the joys and rewards of planting, tending, and eating fresh produce. Plus, getting children outside for lots of fresh air and learning new skills is an additional benefit.

“We created an educational space for local youth to learn about gardening and nutrient-rich foods,” says Schlossbach. “I work with staff and youth from the Boys and Girls Club and Interfaith Neighbors, and anyone else who wants to play in the dirt, to tend the garden. It’s a real community effort.”

Obviously, it costs restaurants less to grow their own produce than to use store-bought produce, or have produce shipped to a restaurant. An added bonus is that it gives chefs more control over the quality of produce. Freshly picked vegetables will always look and taste better than the same produce that traveled miles to arrive at the restaurant’s back door.

Chef LaScola estimates he saves approximately $500 per week by growing his own produce in the backyard garden, which supports his desire to cut operating costs in the restaurant.

Another incentive of hyper-local produce means the produce wasn’t bathed in or grown in chemicals—a sustainability perk that resonates personally with Chef Schlossbach.

“I was enlightened by the direct correlation of food, mind, and body when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1984,” says Schlossbach. “I was in my late teens and had never been exposed to food in a healing way. With the help of my brother, plus a clean diet, my mother went into full remission. This changed my entire outlook on food and its impact on a person’s overall health and well-being.”

Certainly Dauphin Grille’s customers have been the beneficiaries of this personal discovery by Schlossbach. Typically, this restaurant garden grows collards, kale, rainbow chard, lavender, berries, corn, herbs, peas, peppers, and tomatoes—all used in dishes that come out of the kitchen.

“Once we bought the restaurant, we knew we would do some specialized growing for our restaurant,” explains LaScola. “We are helped each year with the initial planting by a local landscaper, Sean O’Callaghan.”

After the initial planting is in, the husband and wife team carry through with all the follow-up care and maintenance that produces raspberries, tomatoes, squash, lettuce, lavender, and edible flowers, along with hard and soft-stemmed herbs.

“One of our menu items inspired from the garden is the Spring Timbale that includes baby arugula, roasted pepitas, quinoa, beets, green onions, and pomegranate vinaigrette topped with mascarpone and goat cheese,” explains Schlossbach. “In the heavy growing season, there are [garden] items on our menu in every dish.”

Dauphin Grille also runs a farmers market called the Carousel Farmer’s Market on Thursdays in the spring and summer months. Plus, the restaurant promotes Farm-to-Table Thursday specials in support of the on-site garden.

Independent restaurants tend to be the ones with gardens due to the flexibility-factor that chain restaurants don’t have. The ability to adjust their menus with what’s in season currently is a bonus for both the independent restaurants and the customers who frequent them, as the connection between food and community nourishes lives on multiple levels.