For years, chefs have been extolling the virtues of locally grown foods. These days, however, it isn't enough to merely buy vegetables at a nearby farmers market. For many chefs, the shortest distance between earth and mouth comes by way of a kitchen garden. From high-tech rooftop operations to herb-stuffed patio containers, it seems that every restaurant in town is growing at least some of its own produce.
The reasons for doing so are as varied as the gardens — and gardeners — themselves. Sure, the quality of a sun-kissed tomato is unbeatable. But other restaurant owners see gardening as a way to connect with both customers and staff. Cost-conscious operators appreciate the savings, while other chefs simply love to play in the dirt.
"First and foremost, I love gardening," says Ricardo Sandoval of Fat Cats (2061 W. 10th St., 216.579.0200) and Felice Urban Eatery (12502 Larchmere Blvd., 216.791.0918). "I've grown up around gardens and farms my whole life. And I've had an herb garden at Fat Cats for 10 years."
One of the most ambitious chef-gardeners, Sandoval tends large gardens at both restaurants. He converted a vacant plot next to Fat Cats into a large kitchen garden that doubles as a community garden for his neighbors. At Felice, he removed 1,800 square feet of sod to make room for a new vegetable garden. In addition to dozens of herbs and literally hundreds of tomato plants, Sandoval grows radishes, gherkins, squash, peppers and eggplant.
"When customers walk outside and see a vegetable garden," says Sandoval, "they can assume a certain level of quality. They know the owner is passionate about food."
Visitors to Nemo Grille (36976 Detroit Rd., Avon, 440.934.0061, nemogrille.com) are greeted by a profusion of herbs. There's mint, chives, basil, rosemary, sage and chervil, all tucked neatly into pots around the restaurant. While diners likely appreciate their good looks, owner Bob Niemojewski appreciates their value.
"Trying to hold fresh herbs is a real challenge at a restaurant," he explains. "By growing my own, it's always there, it's always fresh, and I don't have to buy a half-pound of mint and watch it go bad."
At his home garden, Niemojewski grows heirloom tomatoes, green beans, peppers, eggplant, zucchini and squash. Nearly all of those items find their way into seasonal dishes at the restaurant. During August and September, every tomato served at Nemo is homegrown. The ones that don't get eaten fresh are sun-dried for use well into fall.
You wouldn't know it by looking at it, but Tremont's Lago (2221 Professor Ave., 216.344.0547, lagotremont.com) sports a mighty impressive rooftop garden. Chef Fabio Salerno grows a wide range of specialty herbs, heirloom tomatoes and peppers, all of which he incorporates into dishes served at Lago, Gusto and Grotto. "My mom has a real green thumb, and we had two and a half acres of gardens growing up," says Salerno. "It wasn't until I got older that I started appreciating what a treasure it is to have fresh vegetables at your disposal."
More than just a means to supplement his menus with fresh, vine-ripened produce, Salerno sees the gardens as a unique way to connect with his staff. Everybody from servers to cooks selects special seed varieties that Salerno germinates indoors before transplanting into the rooftop garden. "This makes it fun for everybody," he says.
Joy Harlor of Le Petit Triangle Café (1881 Fulton Ave., 216.281.1881, lepetittrianglecafe.com) has experienced similar benefits. Harlor and her staff cultivate a small garden behind the Ohio City restaurant. The owner appreciates the convenience and economy of having fresh herbs at her disposal, but it's the camaraderie of gardening that she really appreciates. "Restaurant workers don't always have a lot in common," explains Harlor. "Gardening is something we can all enjoy doing together."
Connecting with staff is great for workplace harmony, but connecting with customers is good for the bottom line. "We could very easily cut all our mint before service," says Paul Jagielski, owner of Henry's at the Barn (36840 Detroit Rd., Avon, 440.934.6636, henrysatthebarn.com). "But when customers see the bartender going out to the patio to snip fresh mint for cocktails, they get a real kick out of it. It's a great way to sell mojitos and mint juleps."
By his calculations, Marc Levine of Bistro 185 (991 E. 185th St., 216.481.9635, bistro185.com) could easily buy produce cheaper than he grows it. The consummate tinkerer, Levine crafted a high-tech rooftop garden nourished by an automated drip-irrigation system. Buckets and hand-made planter boxes are filled with 40 tomato plants and countless herbs.
"We don't do this for the savings, let me tell you," says Levine. "We do it strictly for the quality. When you grab a beautiful ripe tomato fresh off the vine, you can actually tell it's a fruit and not a vegetable."
Beth Davis-Noragon can't stand to see food go to waste. So each year, when her backyard pear trees literally sag with fruit, she steps into action. Davis-Noragon transforms bushels and bushels of fruit into jams, jellies and butters for use at Grovewood Tavern (17105 Grovewood Ave., 216.531.4900, grovewoodtavern.com).
"The pear tree is pretty much an obligation," she says. "I would feel horrible if I just let the fruit rot on the ground."