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Chefs in the garden.

Growing their own vegetables is the way to get freshness, flavor, variety--and creative results

TRENDS COME AND GO IN the restaurant world, but the West Coast emphasis on fresh regional ingredients endures. For finicky chefs, it's worth the search for the finest produce to fit this bill. And for the most particular, it's worth the trouble of growing their own.

These three chefs--Jerry Traunfeld in Fall City, Washington; Jerry Comfort in the Napa Valley; and Ron Ottobre in San Ramon, California--are highly acclaimed fo their use of fresh, seasonal vegetables and herbs. Their supply of produce is grown to order right outside their kitchen doors.

Each of these gardens reflects the cooking style of its master, while its size depends on the number of meals served. But the basic goal is the same: growing herbs and vegetables with exceptional flavor, versatility, and beauty.

These kitchen gardens also allow experimentation. Rather than working with only what's available in markets, chefs can draw on unusual ingredients to make their dishes distinctive.

Each chef works closely with gardeners to decide what and how much to grow. For a constant supply of ingredients, crops must be planted in perfect succession. As one fades, the next must be coming into production.

Jerry Comfort, Beringer Vineyards

Located in the heart of the Napa Valley, where the growing season is long and warm, the kitchen garden at Beringer Vineyards supports a restaurant for special functions. Since the 30-by 30-foot plot serves sporadic needs, most of the herbs and vegetables are chosen for long production.

Executive chef Jerry Comfort looks for special items. "I don't grow exotic food just because it's the fad. I choose produce that's flavorful, unique, and appreciated by the guests. Maybe it fondly recalls a trip. Fraises des bois are particularly appreciated for this."

Comfort wants vegetables and herbs that he can use in a variety of dishes. Walla Walla onions are a favorite. He roasts them to stuff game, caramelizes them for sauces, and serves them thinly sliced and breaded.

"The herbs I use are key to the dish, not just part of the overall mix. Their added flavor carries out the dish, such as cedar plank salmon with lemon thyme or chocolate bread pudding with orange mint."

His favorite vegetables include arugula, 'La Belle' baby beans, 'Mini-Red' peppers, 'Yellow Pear' tomatoes, red 'Currant' tomatoes, tomatillos, and a continuous supply of baby salad greens. He grows numerous kinds of basil ('Bush Green', 'Cinnamon', 'Lettuce Leaf', 'Opal', 'Purple Ruffles', and 'Thai') for their varied flavors and pungency. Other herbs include cilantro, dill, epazote, garlic chives, marjoram, several types of mint, oregano, sage, sorrel, and thyme.

Ron Ottobre, Mudd's Restaurant

The core of this innovative restaurant is a 2-acre garden at the base of Crow Canyon in San Ramon, California. Originally owned by the restaurant, the land is now city property and the gardens are managed by Crow Canyon Institute, a nonprofit educational agency.

But the gardens are still run collaboratively by the kitchen and garden staff. Most important is ongoing communication so chef Ron Ottobre knows what is available each day and the gardeners can anticipate future needs.

"Last year, I mainly worked around what came out of the garden. But I found that we had too many specialty items that went to waste."

This year, the restaurant intends to become self-sufficient. "We're trying to reach a balance between practical items that I use every day and specialty produce. The gardeners and I made a calendar outlining the items we plan to grow, the length of time each vegetable is in production, and how long I want to have them available."

As vegetables, herbs, and fruits come into season, Ottobre features them in recipes highlighting their flavor and freshness. He uses 'Brandywine' and 'Marmande' tomatoes as a base for a roasted vegetable sauce with grilled carrots, squash, and eggplant. Grilled vegetables also appear on vegetarian pizza and in quesadillas. When the sage starts flowering, fried sage blossoms or pasta with sage blossoms goes on the menu.

The summer garden includes dozens of salad greens; edible flowers, such as borage, calendula, nasturtium, pansies, roses, and violas; and herbs, such as anise, basil, chervil, dill, cilantro, rosemary, sage, and tarragon. Other staples are colorful peppers ('Golden Bell', 'Lipstick', and 'Marconi'); a selection of small tomatoes ('Yellow Pear', 'Gardener's Delight', and 'Golden Nugget'); rows of 'Blue Lake' beans; and 'Minicor' baby carrots. Dozens of fruit trees are scattered through the garden.

Jerry Traunfeld, The Herbfarm

The Herbfarm restaurant is a spinoff of the nursery, a 30-minute drive east of Seattle in Fall City. It has a mandate to use only the best fresh, local ingredients, highlighted with herbs.

Each week, chef Jerry Traunfeld serves only a hundred meals, and every diner gets the same six-course lunch or nine-course dinner. "Since everyone gets the same meal, it has to appeal to a wide variety of tastes. We work with traditional flavors, but give them a twist. We make sorbets out of Douglas fir needles or lemon verbena. Tuberous nasturtium roots are used as a glazed winter vegetable."

Because the garden is only 1/2 acre, it can't provide all of the produce needed. Traunfeld focuses on vegetables and herbs that are difficult to find or whose freshness is critical to the taste. For instance, peas and corn are harvested no more than 2 hours before serving.

The garden must produce enough of each ingredient for a week's meals. "If we have braised fennel on the menu, we need enough to serve a hundred patrons. But we'll probably feature it more than once during the spring. This means growing a succession of crops."

Every two weeks they plant 'Finaud' French green beans, 'Sugar Snap' peas, 'Varna' leeks, 'Romy' fennel, and 'Oregon Pioneer', 'Oregon Trail', and 'Maestro' shelling peas. 'Arlesa' and 'Seneca' zucchini are each planted twice, a month apart.

When Traunfeld and the gardener choose varieties, they must consider Fall City's cool, wet climate (they don't even try to grow melons or eggplants). Some favorite tomatoes are red 'Oregon Spring' and 'Champion', yellow 'Taxi', and cherry 'Sweet Million'. Good corn varieties are 'Hooker's Sweet Indian', 'Seneca Dawn', and 'Baby Corn'.

Along with a variety of lettuces, they grow a wide range of specialty greens, such as amaranth, arugula, garden purslane, 'Red Giant' mustard, mizuna, red orache, red perilla (shiso), 'Guilio' radicchio, and tatsoi, and more herbs than you thought existed. Edible flowers are grown for color and flavor.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:chefs who grow their vegetable ingredients
Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Publication:Sunset
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:1079
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