Growing Closer

Restaurants are making the gap
between farm and table even tighter

 

E

ach year the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot Culinary Forecast predicts food and menu trends for the coming year.

In the most recent survey of 700 ACF chefs, “hyper-local” sourcing, such as restaurant gardens, claimed the number one spot as the hottest culinary concept trend for 2018. Restaurants are taking the concept of farm-to-table a bit further — or closer, actually — by sourcing ingredients from gardens located just steps away.

We spoke with a few restaurateurs to see what all the buzz is about.

“It feels good to be able to tell our customers that we know exactly what they are eating,” says ACF member Brandon LaVielle, chef and co-owner of Lavish Roots, a catering company based in Washington.

LaVielle’s catering company doesn’t yet have the space to house an on-site garden, so his team sources microgreens from a local farmer.

“[The farmer] grows to order. I can tell her that I have an event and if I know a month in advance, she can have the harvest ready in 10 days,” he says.

LaVielle typically only requests herbs and greens to add flavor or garnish since it’s a bit difficult to get greens in excess when dealing with a small farm. But he prefers it that way.

“I love supporting small business because we’re a small business. We’re helping each other grow.”

Lavish Roots’ relationship with their microgreens farmer is what embodies the farm-to-table movement: restaurants having a close relationship with the grower of harvests served within their establishments. This type of business model works both ways. It allows restaurants to use the idea of local sourcing in promotion and it helps attract patrons looking for fresh ingredients.

“When we harvest micro basil to use in pestos and pasta, for example, our customers are surprised at how much flavor it packs,” says LaVielle. “That’s why we deal with baby greens and don’t allow them to grow beyond about 21 days. Here’s an analogy: When we’re babies and start to progress to the toddler stage, we have so much energy — we’re fruitful. Well, that’s exactly what a plant is. When it starts to grow, in its infancy is when the nutrients are at their highest levels. As plants get older, just like humans do, its nutrients start to deteriorate.”

 

Green(Ish) Thumb

Tips for beginner vegetable gardening

Not everyone is fortunate to have a green thumb but that doesn’t mean they can’t try their hand at gardening. For starters, consider growing a salad: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers. Lettuce tends to grow fairly quickly and is simple to harvest.

Tomatoes can practically grow anywhere that gets proper sunlight, such as hanging baskets and containers. Cucumbers do well with lots of sunlight and in warm temperatures. They also need support to climb. Think vertical grow towers. Once they get growing, they’re like weeds.

San Francisco-based restaurateur Anthony Myint says that beginner gardeners should be realistic. “Choose things that can go a few days without water,” he says. “Because that’s often one of the hardest parts.”

If you’re dealing with inclement weather or if you’re forgetful, crops such as pumpkins, onions and peppers can withstand drier conditions but that doesn’t mean they don’t need water. Once you get the hang of things, don’t be afraid to branch out, sprout up, root down.

Advocates of the farm-to-table movement frequently cite the scarcity of fresh, local ingredients and how the flavor is impacted when something has to be pumped with preservatives in order to withstand the journey it must take to reach a restaurant from a major distributor.

“Some people are calling it a trend, I think it’s a sign of the times changing with people eating healthier,” says LaVielle. “It’s important that we know what we’re getting—what we’re putting in our bodies and our clients’ bodies.”

Some restaurants are taking things even further and adopting hyper-local gardening to not only provide their customers with fresh ingredients but to also reduce their carbon footprint. Take The Perennial in San Francisco, for example.

The restaurant features an aquaponic greenhouse where food scraps are fed to worms and larvae that are in turn fed to fish that then fertilize the vegetables used at the restaurant. (Take a breath, that was a lot.)

Owner Anthony Myint says it’s all about combating climate change, eating responsibly grown food and recycling. “You can’t get fresher [ingredients],” he says.

While The Perennial mostly produces its own herbs, chefs also utilize the restaurant’s garden to produce unique foods that add to its culinary identity, such as succulents. “We’re able to grow delicate flowers like ice plants that you don’t really see used at a lot of restaurants,” says Myint.

Myint says they harvest about once or twice a week but oftentimes they just snip a bunch of herbs and greens right before dinner service. While it’s sustainable to be able to include fresh ingredients, Myint agrees that it takes quite a bit of extra work.

“It takes a lot to manage and it can be a bit time consuming,” he says. “It’s one more thing to worry about.”

Chef Neil Ferguson of American Seasons in Nantucket, Massachusetts enjoys the extra work. “I find gardening to be very zen-like and calming,” he says. “It’s also very inspirational. As you see things come to fruition, you can add them to your menu.”

American Seasons also grows a small batch of herbs and greens to use on the menu. They are currently working on expanding the harvest to include more vegetables but until then, they will continue to partner with other farms on the island.

Like LaVielle and Myint, Ferguson has also found yield to be a challenge. While he hopes for more consistency in the future to allow for better menu planning, he definitely believes hyper-local sourcing is the way to go.

“I think [fresh ingredients] are more enjoyable for our cooks and waiters,” he says. “Our food has a higher quality and we are able to promote that we’ve grown it ourselves.”

If you’re thinking of adopting a hyper-local sourcing trend for your restaurant, be sure your practices are within the regulations to legally sell and serve the harvest.

One should also have safeguards in place when it comes to growing, sourcing, handling and serving. Knowing the farmer or growing the crops yourself can greatly reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.

 

Small World

Gardening in small spaces just got simpler

When it comes to the shift in local agriculture, the next trend is as local as it gets: your kitchen. For those wanting the freshness of produce harvested from an on-site garden but feel restricted due to space, fret not. Technology has made gardening more convenient for those with limited space.

One may find it simple to pot a few herbs and grow them in their windowsill or balcony, but what about vegetables? Appliances like the Urban Cultivator allow you to grow microgreens along with those herbs, and in the convenience of your own kitchen.

Just place a tray of seeds inside the refrigerator-like unit, press a couple of buttons, and wait. A few days later, you’ll have fresh greens. Chef Brandon LaVielle of Lavish Roots catering company in Washington advises that the most important aspect of growing herbs and microgreens is regulation.

“Make sure [your plants] have light, but not too much light. And make sure they’re in a place that you can regulate.” Thankfully, the use of automated appliances makes regulation even simpler. The Urban Cultivator comes in two versions—residential and commercial.

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