When Bruce Sherman, executive chef/partner of North Pond restaurant, was studying to become a cook, dealing with fruit thieves was never on his list of expected responsibilities.
But for the last two years, some park walker, perhaps a rogue pie baker, absconded with the fresh blood red rhubarb stalks that grow in the tiny garden plot that abuts the Arts and Crafts style former ice skater’s warming hut housing his restaurant. He says, “They take the flowers too. Growing anything that bears fruit is out of the question.”
For Sherman, the garden is part of his hyper-commitment to cooking seasonally. A growing number of chefs and bartenders, like Paul Kahan of Blackbird, Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill, and Adam Seger of Nacional 27, are no longer content to fill their kitchen larder exclusively with farmer- and vendor-provided produce. Following the burgeoning locavore movement, these chefs are using herbs, vegetables and fruit from their own restaurant and home gardens on their daily menus.
For some chefs, like Roland Liccioni of Old Town Brasserie — who’s currently cooking up zucchini blossoms from his 50-by-100-meter plot in Mettawa — the home garden serves as a reminder of his youth. Liccioni says, “In Biarritz [France] everyone had farms. I was always working on farms as a kid, making salads. My dad had pigeons, chickens and ducks.”
Jeffrey Sills, sous chef at Quince at the Homestead in Evanston, said that growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his family was full of avid gardeners, and growing your own food was part of the culture.
For Kahan, who started gardening as a 10-year-old, his green spread in Irving Park is a way of relaxing from the endless hours in a hot kitchen. The same holds true for his old boss, Bayless, who maintains a home garden and a cluster of Earthbox self-watering container gardens on the roof at Frontera Grill/Topolobampo. He says, “My wife and I knew we weren’t going to be able to get out of the city a lot. We were looking to create a getaway.”
Sherman relishes walking out to the back of North Pond with a stainless steel hotel pan and pruning shears after a family meal, just before service, calling it “inspiring” and “therapeutic.”
These chefs aren’t looking to replace the farmers they value so much, but rather they’re using the bounty as a way to experiment and garner rare plants that aren’t common at local markets. Bayless grows hoja santa, a green leafy peppery herb for his yellow mole sauce. Sherman grows anise hyssop to make a sorbet that explodes with licorice, mint, and citrus flavors.
Seger, whose bar at Nacional 27 is lined with potted herbs including Cuban oregano, Stevia (a natural sweetener), kaffir lime leaf and lavender says, “You look across the bar and there’s all these wonderful raw materials. It inspires me to make new cocktails. I’ve been doing this sugar-free Mojito by crushing the Stevia.” He adds, “The essential oils are so much fresher on the bar plants, which is really important. It adds this huge perfume to a drink that you don’t get even with hours-old herbs.”
Kahan says, “Mike [Sheerin, chef de cuisine at Blackbird] gets totally inspired when I bring stuff in like Lovage.” Sheerin’s currently using it pickled in a dish of braised lamb with fresh chickpeas, spring radishes and feta.
Working so closely with their own produce has given most of these chefs and their staffs a greater connection to the food chain and a sense of the struggles of local farmers. Bayless recalls one of his prep cooks helping a farmer unload boxes of lettuces from the back of a truck saying, “This guy drops one of the boxes on the ground. And this farmer, she was an older woman, reads him the riot act, telling him she took weeks to wash, rinse and sort each of the lettuces carefully. I’ve never seen that guy treat a vegetable badly again.”
For these chefs, plants don’t always sprout when you expect them to, or never at all. Herbs get wind damaged and tomatoes get pockmarked from hail. Sills says, “To grow a simple Spanish onion for making a soup, you’ve been coddling it for 10 weeks. Unlike a 50- pound bag of onions that arrives at the back door from Sysco, there’s no chance you’ll burn it. Sometimes you don’t even want to cook it. They’re [the plants] like your children.”
Being an urban gardener has its own particular set of quirks. The garden at Quince is on the roof of the hotel, and the only way for Sills to get to it is to climb up a creaky fire escape from the eighth floor. Moving huge wooden planters and compost is a logistical nightmare. He said he was considering asking a nearby construction crew to use their cranes to move supplies.
Kahan lamented the wilting of some of his plants near his back fence that were responding to chemicals used to remove graffiti from the alley behind his house.
These kinds of struggles sometimes make hyperlocal gardening a tough economic proposition. Sherman says, “It’s a money loser at this point, I suppose. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s the right thing to do to get closer to the land, to have better product. I’d really like to expand to sustainable intensive gardening on the roof.”
The rewards ultimately outweigh the trials and cost, though. As Bayless says, “There’s just something about sunlight. It’s amazing when you’re personally harvesting a peach, and taking a bite, the juices dribbling, and the flesh is still warm from the sun.”
SPRING ONION AGRO-DOLCE
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
3 bunches spring onions, leafy greens removed, roots trimmed
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
If the onions are thicker than a pencil, split them lengthwise.
Heat a saute pan large enough to accommodate all the onions in one layer. You might have to cook the onions in batches.
When the pan is hot, add the oil, then the onions. When they begin to color, toss them and let them continue to cook until they are almost cooked through. Whisk together the sugar and vinegar and add to the onions.
Cook over high heat until the onions are glazed and the vinegar mixture is syrupy.
Add sea salt to taste. Spread the onions out onto a plate until cool.
When ready to serve, place the onions on a plate and sprinkle with a bit more sea salt and a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil.
Note: Cippolini onions, mushrooms (cremini are ideal) or eggplant can be substituted.
From Rob Levitt of Mado
Nutrition facts per serving: 261 calories, 18 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 28 g carbohydrates, 1 g protein, 69 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
BLACKBIRD’S HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD WITH BUFFALO MOZZARELLA, BASIL AND AGED BALSAMIC
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
4 to 5 different types of heirloom tomatoes, about the size of a baseball
4 ounces buffalo mozzarella, sliced
2 to 3 types of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1/2 red onion, slivered
1 bunch picked basil
1/2 cup small arugula leaves
2 tablespoons high-quality olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
Place sliced tomatoes on four plates. (1 slice each type per plate.) Layer mozzarella over the tomatoes.
In a small bowl, combine cherry tomatoes, red onion, basil and arugula. Dress this with olive oil and lemon juice, tasting for flavor and adjusting as necessary.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place a small amount of salad on top of mozzarella. Drizzle balsamic vinegar over the top.
From Paul Kahan, Blackbird
Nutrition facts per serving: 175 calories, 12 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 13 mg cholesterol, 9 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein, 270 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
WANT TO GARDEN? TRY THESE
Combines well with meat, tomato sauce and salads and can be used to infuse vinegars and oils.
Use in salads, especially with tomatoes, and sauces. Combines well with garlic. Do not let the plant flower.
Common thyme can be used in stews, sauces and salads and is main ingredient in bouquet garni. Helps aid digestion.
Use with mint for tea, or add to herb vinegar for marinade or salad dressing. Can be used in place of lemon peel.