NC chefs work gardens into their restaurants and menus

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comJuly 30, 2013 

  • Chefs’ garden tips From Jeremy Law, Chad McIntyre and Trey Wilson:

    • Don’t waste anything. Keep a list of what you’ve picked and have several tricks for using things fast – freezing, cooking into sauce, quick-pickling in the refrigerator.

    • Grind salt with several herbs to make “green salt.” Or make a chimichurri-style sauce by pulsing herbs, crushed pepper flakes, oil and vinegar. Use as a marinade or vinaigrette.

    • When you’ve got a lot of herbs, process them with olive oil and freeze them, then add to soup, marinades and dressings.

    • Don’t overbuy – just buy what you need and can use in a few days. You get more nutrients from food that is fresher.

    • If you have a lot of tomatoes that don’t look great, peel them, roast them and freeze them as sauce.

Editor's note: This story published Wednesday should have described Wilson as east of Raleigh, not southeast.

Look around any restaurant kitchen and you’ll see wipe-off boards covered with lists – prep lists, purchase lists, work lists.

Here’s one list from the kitchen board in Customshop, a restaurant in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood:

“From the garden: Heirloom tomatoes, jalapenos, banana peppers, cayenne peppers, padron peppers, shishito peppers, eggplant, savoy cabbage, okra, sage, parsley, oregano, rosemary.”

Everyone on the staff is expected to come up with ideas for using that list, the daily harvest from the 2,000-square-foot garden in chef/owner Trey Wilson’s backyard.

“They get crazy-excited about it,” says Wilson.

In the restaurant world, there are those who talk about growing their own food. And then there are those who actually do it.

There are chefs like Jeremy Law of SoCo Farm and Food in Wilson, southeast of Raleigh, whose restaurant took shape when Law and his wife moved to an 11-acre farm. Or there’s Chad McIntyre, who used to grow in containers at the original location of his Raleigh café, The Market. Now he’s moving to a new location that overlooks Raleigh City Farms, a community garden near Peace College that sells produce to local restaurants.

“I could throw a rock and hit a tomato,” says McIntyre.

There are plenty of reasons why chefs don’t grow their own food: Lack of space, lack of time and long hours that are tough enough.

“Chefs are working 12 hours a day already,” admits Bill Schutz, who hopes to eventually add at least a container garden at Bonterra in Dilworth. But he isn’t there yet.

“A lot of people talk about it. I’ll get there.”

Know what you cook

Anyone who gardens knows the pleasures of freshly picked food. For chefs, it’s even more satisfying to have such a close relationship with their ingredients.

“You have a better understanding of food if you grow it yourself,” says Trey Wilson. “You have a better understanding of flavors. Pick it too early, it’s bitter. Too late, it won’t last.”

This summer, Wilson has gone crazy with peppers: Hot ones, sweet ones, heirloom ones. He grows them specifically for a particular mussel dish. Sometimes he grows things and finds a way to use them, and sometimes he comes up with a dish and then grows what he needs for it.

“You get so much flavor off of organically grown, just-picked vegetables. It’s double the flavor.”

Chad McIntyre says growing something himself makes him value it more and be less likely to waste it.

“It makes you aware,” he says. “For me, it’s been the bigger picture thing. For years and years, chefs would throw away product. Throw it in the stock pot. I’ve gone in some kitchens and the stock pot, they’re filling it in a half-day.”

Instead, he pushes to find uses for everything. He freezes fruits and berries, makes pickles, even dries tomatoes and grinds them up into tomato dust to sprinkle on dishes.

“There are hundreds of recipes for savory pickles – kimchees, sauerkraut. Those are home recipes, developed over thousands of years on farms. You can do them anywhere, in your penthouse downtown.”

When it comes to creative, Jeremy Law takes the cake with his watermelon steak.

For a recent dinner for vegetarian friends, he cut watermelon into fat, round slices, brushed them with soy sauce and roasted them, first for 20 minutes at 450, then for a couple of hours at about 225 degrees.

“They’re real soft – it comes out looking like rare hanger steaks. To work with just vegetables, it keeps you a little sharper.”

Work, work, work

There are tricks to keeping garden duties in control. Wilson covers his soil with straw to keep down weeds. It also helps to plan carefully and make sure you don’t plant more garden than you can tend.

“People don’t quite realize if you have a good-size garden, how prolific plants can be when they start to fruit,” says McIntyre. “People will plant eight squash plants for a family of four and they rot on the vine. You could have done two or three and culled one out. Pull it out if it’s taking nutrients from something else.”

The outdoor work of gardening, though, can be a relief when you’re inside a windowless kitchen all day. It’s just over 3 miles from Trey Wilson’s house to his restaurant, so he can go back and forth several times – garden in the morning, run in to make fresh pasta, go home to garden, go back for service.

Chefs who really want to do it can find a way, he says.

“It drives me bonkers, guys who say they’re farm-to-table and they’re not.”

As for cutting the food bill with what the restaurant grows … well, that’s a nice thought. By the time you figure in labor, space and water, restaurant gardens don’t save money. But the value goes beyond the harvest, says Jeremy Law.

“I love that I can go out 20 feet from the kitchen and pick things we’re going to be serving in a few hours. It’s smugness – I don’t have to ask anyone for these things.

“You can’t grow absolutely everything, but we grow everything we can.”

Mussels With Mixed Peppers Trey Wilson grows a mixture of hot and sweet peppers. If you don’t have shishito or padron peppers, use poblano peppers. 4 padron or shishito peppers (or poblanos) 4 banana peppers 18 to 20 mussels 1/2 ounce chorizo sausage 1/2 cup full-flavored beer, such as Triple C smoked amber 1/4 cup tomato sauce 1/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

REMOVE stem from each pepper, slice in half and remove seeds. Cut into thin strips. Set aside.

RINSE mussels in cold water and discard any mussels that are open and don’t close.

SAUTE the chorizo in a saute pan on medium high heat for about 10 seconds. Add peppers and cook briefly, about 5 seconds. Add mussels in their shells to the pan and toss with peppers and chorizo. Add beer, tomato sauce and chicken stock. Cover pan and steam until the mussels are opened. Remove mussels from pan and set aside in a serving bowl.

ADD butter, salt and pepper to the sauce in the pan. Bring to a boil and reduce for 1 minute. Pour over the mussels in the bowl. Serve with grilled bread.

Yield: 1 serving; can double or triple.

Squash Picnic Salad From Chad McIntyre, The Market in Raleigh. He expects the new location to be open in early fall. 6 to 8 crookneck or straight-neck yellow squash 1 to 2 teaspoons salt Black pepper to taste 2 cups cooked, chilled wild rice or quinoa 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, or to taste 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil or light-flavored vegetable oil, or to taste

WASH squash and cut in long slices. Spread squash on a towel and sprinkle with salt. Let stand about 15 minutes until it exudes excess moisture. Pat dry with paper towels, then sprinkle with pepper.

PLACE slices of squash in a single layer on a metal pan and cook for about 10 minutes at 425 degrees, or grill until just lightly browned (don’t overcook).

TOSS squash with wild rice or quinoa. Add enough vinegar and oil just to moisten. Serve, adding any other diced fresh herbs or other vegetables if you like.

Yield: 4 servings or more.

Summer Watermelon Salad From Jeremy Law, SoCo Farm and Food, Wilson. 1 red beet, peeled and sliced very thin 1 cucumber, peeled and sliced thin 2 pounds of watermelon; rind removed, seeded and cut into 1-inch chunks 10 cherry tomatoes, halved 4 ounces goat cheese 2 tablespoons sweet onion, skin removed and sliced very thin 2 tablespoons pistachios, shelled and coarsely chopped 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste Sweet Citrus Vinaigrette (see note)

PLACE 3 slices each of beet and cucumber on 4 plates. Then divide the watermelon, tomatoes, onion and goat cheese evenly among the plates. Sprinkle each plate lightly with salt, pepper, pistachios, thyme leaves, and a drizzle of Sweet Citrus Vinaigrette.

SWEET CITRUS VINAIGRETTE: Combine 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons each lemon juice, orange juice and honey, 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar and 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt in a jar with a lid. Shake until blended.

Purvis: 704-358-5236

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