Culinary Gardens

Design isn’t limited to cake decoration. Why not get inspired to design a culinary garden? At this year’s National Restaurant Association Show, Tucker Taylor, the Culinary Gardener for Chef Thomas Keller’s award-winning restaurants—The French Laundry, Bouchon and Ad Hoc—provided tips for creating and maintaining a culinary garden.

The French Laundry Culinary Garden started eight years ago with the goal of educating both its restaurants’ chefs and the community. The chefs themselves created and tended the garden. And for the community, they would do fun things such as grow pumpkins in the fall for local elementary school kids.

The main benefit of having an on-site garden is an enhanced guest experience. Guests of the restaurant can walk around it and ask questions. And at the French Laundry, it’s always open to the public – not just restaurant guests. That feature brings in new people who don’t know about the restaurant all of the time. Finally, special evenings that consist of a garden tour and a candlelit dinner in the garden are an added attraction.

Another benefit of a garden is staff education. At the French Laundry, every staff member takes a garden tour, learns about the harvest, and is involved in a lunch prep using the garden’s produce. It’s a good team building tool.

Read through Taylor’s tips below and evaluate your space and resources to determine if even a small garden is feasible for your foodservice establishment. And if you can’t establish your own garden, consider reaching out to and forging relationships with local gardeners.

Practical Gardening Tips
*If you have healthy soil, you’ll have healthy crops. To do that, add a lot of compost and dutifully rotate your crops. Designing a garden in quadrants makes crop rotation easy to manage.

*Plant perennial borders around the edges of the garden. This will keep out unwanted pests while at the same time attracting beneficial insects and pollinators. A lot of the perennial flowers are also edible and can add unique flavor profiles to menu items.
Edible blossoms:
*Nasturtiams (peppery flavor)
*Chive blossoms
*Bachelor buttons
*Borage (cucumber flavor)
*Oxalis (sour)
*Fuscia (great for use in pastry; sweet, nectar flavor)
*Violas
*Lithadora (sweet, nectar flavor)

*A great way to make your garden unique is to incorporate specialty produce. The decision about what is grown should be a collaboration with the chefs. At the French Laundry Culinary Garden, Taylor gives the chefs seed catalogs and they tell him what they want. With whatever leftover garden space there is, Taylor can plant what he wants. Some of the specialty crops he recommends are:
*Oyster leaf: A plant that tastes just like oysters
*Frais des Bois: White strawberries with pineapple qualities
*Ficoide Glacial: Salty lettuce

*Focusing on baby vegetables allows for greater turnover because you don’t have to wait for things to get to full size.

Getting Down to Business
*Practical Considerations:
Anyone can grow produce, just remember to learn through your mistakes. And before you begin, define your goals.

*Marketing Values:
You can put together produce baskets for restaurant guests and garden visitors. People’s faces light up when they get fresh produce. And it will surely give you a competitive advantage in your market.

*Social Media:
Social media provides a great platform to visually connect the dots from farm to table for your customers. Upload photos of your produce’s journey from seed to harvest to menu description to final dish.

*Food Costs:
If something costs a lot to buy, consider growing it instead. Shallots are a good example of this.

*Helpful Resources:
Books: The New Organic Grower; Four Season Harvest; The Hoophouse Handbook
Newsletters: Growing for Market; Small Farm Journal
Websites: attra.org; rodaleinstitute.org; localharvest.org