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How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Francine Cohen

Though English in origin, “Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” is a familiar refrain to most New Yorkers. And this season, diners can pose that same question to some of their favorite chefs, who have yearned to go beyond the greenmarket and have established their own gardens where they get their hands dirty, nurturing the soil and raising vegetables and herbs to share with their guests.

Chefs Ben Pollinger of Oceana, Michael Psilakis of Anthos, and Michel Nischan of The Dressing Room have been avid gardeners since they were children, well before they knew they wanted to be chefs. Pollinger has a 500 square foot garden in his home’s backyard, with 50% dedicated to vegetables and the rest for herbs and a strawberry patch with a fig tree. “I’ve been gardening as long as I can remember,” Pollinger says. “My grandfather and father were gardeners as well, and my grandfather used to spend a lot of time with me in the garden.” Nischan’s 9000 square foot garden is the result of a lifetime of gardening which began when his mother tore up his suburban Chicago backyard and turned it into a garden where she grew vegetables for canning and pickling.

Nischan grows eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, potatoes, asparagus, lettuces, strawberries, and much more. He uses them all in his restaurant’s kitchen, and often uses them in daily menu specials. Psilakis spent hours in his father’s garden getting an introduction to a variety of vegetables that had grown from seeds brought over from Greece. Psilakis comments on the difference between what he’s finding at the greenmarket and what Dad brings straight from the garden, “I was at the farmer’s market with my cooks buying for today’s service, and even though the farmers are growing things that are fantastic, to me it’s still not like the home grown vegetable. My dad is growing tomatoes that don’t look beautiful necessarily, but they smell like the earth.”
The earth it’s grown in, and perhaps even the salt air that wafts past the plants, definitely impact what is plucked from the garden. Louie Sloves, owner of Louie’s Westside, along with her executive chef Rich Sullivan, are both impressed with the intensity of flavor in everything Louie brings from her Long Branch, N.J. seaside garden. The garden consists of six 6x12 raised beds, and yields tomatoes to tarragon, mint, flowers and more. Sloves notices a real difference from what comes from outside purveyors, “Our tarragon is very robust, more so than we tend to get from upstate. I don’t know the science of it all and what to attribute the intensity of flavor to, but it certainly is different. And it blooms earlier.” Sullivan, a Brooklyn native who knew nothing about gardening as a kid, is thrilled with this new found bounty. “It’s exciting for a chef to be able to go into a market and see what they have – and this is even better,” he says. “I know when a surprise is coming in a ‘mystery basket’ sort of way, and I say ‘just bring it in and I’ll figure it out.’ If you have a passion for cooking it’s great.”

Excited as these chefs are about homegrown vegetables and herbs, they realize that they can only supply a small percentage for the menu in their restaurants, roughly 10-30% depending on the size of the restaurant. “I can’t generally keep up a supply to exclusively sustain a restaurant of our volume,” Pollinger notes, “but I’ll always bring things in that I have enough of to use as a special dish, or when I first get inspiration for something new. I’ll also supplement what I buy from other farmers with my products when I have enough.”

Having enough on hand to introduce diners to the pleasures of freshly picked vine ripened tomatoes, basil, mint, zucchini and more that traveled in a paper sack via LIRR that morning, rather than serving vegetables that were trucked in from across the country, is a source of joy for these chefs. Marc Taxiera of Beppe doesn’t even have to use mass transportation to get his herbs from garden to table; he just steps through the restaurant’s front door to harvest the rosemary, thyme and other herbs he’s got growing in boxes. Taxiera loves having fresh herbs at his fingertips even if his guests don’t always notice that they are walking by rosemary bushes as they enter Beppe. “We use a ton of herbs here – mostly this gets used for garnish. The amount of space we have isn’t so big that we grow a ton, but when we’ve run out of herbs a few times we were able to dash out front and cut them and bring it back in for service.”

Serving what they grow allows many chefs to feel connected to their reason for becoming a chef. Nischan remarks on how having a garden impacts his menu saying, “It is keeping me aware of what’s in season at the moment.” Pollinger says that he gets an enormous sense of pride from knowing that he grew something himself. “It is the ultimate teaching lesson for young cooks,” he says. “It is crucial for cooks to respect and care for the ingredients they use. They need to remember that there are many people involved in our food chain. The garden impacts my menu by providing me instant inspiration for new ideas and dishes, even for things I do not grow. Just putting yourself in the gardening frame of mind and becoming one with the vegetables and fruits and herbs opens your mind to new ideas. It also reinforces my commitment to using locally produced and sustainable products, and first and foremost to use products with good flavor.”Just-picked flavor is what chefs are looking for when they cull from their own gardens. They also work closely with farmers who have the capacity to provide them with a full order’s worth of produce and herbs. Pollinger noted that chefs and farmers no longer simply have a reactionary relationship where the chefs buy whatever the farmer produces, but that more often they work together to cultivate produce and herbs that the chef wants for future seasons. “Farmers are just like cooks,” Psilakis says. “They are just so proud of what they do. Ultimately it’s about developing a relationship with someone who understands you have the passion for what they are doing. They’ll put special stuff aside, and that‘s when you start being able to have fun in the kitchen!”

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