The Rise of Chef-Managed Gardens: Growing for Flavor

The importance of vegetables on restaurant menus is an ever-growing (literally) consideration for restaurateurs and chefs, and growing for flavor is a priority. As guests arrive more knowledgeable about produce, the importance of plant-based foods, and a hunger for something especially delicious, kitchens are finding that there is more to sourcing than simply finding the lowest bidder.

There have been several iterations of the “farm-to-fork” phenomenon, and the time has come where chefs are no longer interested in the phrase that describes their philosophy as much as they are authentically living it.

Tasting the Quality

Chefs starting gardens in or near their restaurants is not a new thing, but it is becoming a larger thing. Having an herb garden is not uncommon for chefs, whether it is a small window-style setup or a raised bed in the back of the restaurant. The levels of flavor that can be reached with herbs and produce that was technically “just growing” minutes ago are incredibly high.

The bite of the lettuce is different, the flavors become mind-blowing, and it contributes to a restaurant’s story. As guests seek out “authenticity,” it should be something servers boast about at the table when they mention the chef picked the herbs used in the special tonight right out of their own backyard. There is something that connects with guests on a very familiar level, and truly makes them realize the menu and the business is as real as they can get.

Chefs who get their feet wet with top quality produce realize a new standard and find it hard to go back to cheap commodity produce, but things can get rather expensive when only buying local, top quality. There will be different solutions for each business, as what works for one may not work for the next.

There are chefs who spend a great deal of their “free” time in the restaurant garden, on site or a few miles away. Some hire out for that work, but to be intimately involved with the growing is something that gives chefs more respect for what they are serving. This is largely the reason guests are seeing and expecting to see vegetables move to the center of the plate in the form of things like roasted root vegetables sous vide, wood-fired, and roasted in salt.

DIY vs. Outsourcing

Restaurant industry workers and leaders are notoriously busy, so making some time to tend to a farm seems crazy. A few raised beds to grow a small percentage of the restaurants herbs and some greens, or maybe a few tomatoes, doesn’t seem impossible, — until you have to think about it in an entirely different scale, such as a restaurant looking to provide their own produce to the point where every guests gets to enjoy it.

Restaurateurs like Whisknladle Hospitality in San Diego have the luxury of driving east a short distance and working with small farms to plant what they can specifically use. Colors, textures, and super specific flavors can be planned for several months in advance when the chef or restaurateur has a say in what is being planted.

Farms all over Southern California enjoy a growing season all year long, so there are small farms a short drive away from restaurants in the area. Much of the country doesn’t enjoy this luxury, so they look to indoor gardening and containers. Companies like Freight Farms offer insulated containers that allow growers to provide quality leafy greens 365 days a year. Corner Stalk Farm in Boston uses Freight Farms containers and enjoys an output that rivals that of a 4-acre farm, all while growing for flavor out of a few shipping containers in a vacant lot.

Vertical farming, rooftop farming, hydroponics, and other tactics on the rise are making urban farming a brighter reality that gives chefs more flavor to work with. Using the freshest ingredients requires care and a different mindset, but kitchens embracing this new reality are seeing tremendous results in offering more value when a guest chooses to experience their food and their restaurant.