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Green Splendor: The Quest for Fresh Inspires Restaurant Gardens

There is a growing awareness across the country about the story of food.  Despite the many failures of our current national food system, there are shining examples of communities that care for the way food is grown, shared, and consumed — and the public is welcoming this movement with open arms.

 

By Britta Turner

 

Throughout Southern  California – in Los Angeles, specifically – you may have noticed many neighborhood restaurants serving locally-sourced ingredients. What may come as a surprise, however, is that these ingredients are picked fresh daily from restaurant gardens, and perhaps even cultivated right in the chefs’ own backyards.

 

A.O. C Wine Bar, Head Bartender Christiaan Rollich

Green Goddess Cocktail 1

On the other side of the spectrum, Christian Rollich takes a highly creative approach to mixology by integrating the crops grown in A.O.C.’s small garden in Beverly Hills.

 

Rollich began his career working at Lucques, a sister restaurant to A.O.C, as a part-time job to help pay for college. After six years of observing Chef/Owner Suzanne Goin, he developed a strong connection to ingredients, which piqued his curiosity and creativity. After transferring to A.O.C and being promoted to head bartender, he began to experiment with making drink products; soon he was hand-crafting everything on-site, from bitters and syrups to liquors similar to Grand Marnier and Cointreau.

 

Take, for example, the garden’s peppery arugula. Rollich uses the delightfully bright green as the base of a grassy-flavored syrup which he makes by blending its leaves, straining its pulp, then cooking it down with sugar to create a powerful, concentrated flavor. “Everything has a purpose in a cocktail, for color, taste, texture, and feel,” he says. In Rollich’s opinion, less is more. He would rather not use raw material purely for aesthetics and considers garnishes the first to go to waste. “They shouldn’t define the drink.”

 

The house has five or six seasonal drinks on the menu, but guests are encouraged to choose a flavor or spirit which gives Rollich an opportunity to work mixology magic. “People get excited about experimenting with what flavors they want based on a spirit, which gives me a limiting factor or a structure from which my creativity can flow,” he says.

 

Currently the first in Goin’s group of restaurants to plant a garden, A.O.C is producing basil, mint, rosemary, bay leaf, and thyme — all mostly utilized for cocktails. Five months strong, it will take time to determine the garden’s potential yield. What can be ascertained is the guests’ appreciation of A.O.C’s emphasis on fresh ingredients; Rollich is constantly evolving his craft based on personal research, experimentation, and their feedback. aocwinebar.com

 

BLVD 16, Chef Richard Hodge

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Originally from San Francisco, Richard Hodge moved to Los Angeles in 2011 to become Executive Chef at Blvd 16. What attracted Hodge to Los Angeles was the pre-existing chef’s garden on the rooftop of the Hotel Palomar in Westwood that houses the restaurant. Originally an 8’x8’ hydroponic network of assorted plants, the garden had since fallen into a state of disarray. It was the rooftop’s astounding view of Westwood and Catalina Island that captured Hodge’s attention and inspired his strong desire to improve and grow the garden into a living, functional backdrop for the restaurant. Hodge is an experienced backyard gardener and aspires to be an ambassador for showcasing unique ingredients in the restaurant, much like what he does at home.

 

Currently, the rooftop garden is in the midst of a construction project charged with the redesign of the restaurant’s structural and aesthetic layout. Hodge envisions dedicating what will be a 40’x40’ area of the roof to large, moveable terracotta pots that will host crops like summer squash, peppers, and tomatoes. Other smaller planter boxes will contain fresh herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, and mint to be used in stocks, desserts, and cocktails for the restaurant’s flexible menu. Hodge hopes the garden will inspire guests; he dreams of inviting them to purchase individual plants so that he can prepare specific dishes for them when their crops reach harvest. “I want people to see what I’ve nurtured in order to prepare for them a delicious meal,” says Hodge. blvd16.com

 

Alma, Chef Ari Taymor and Chef (and urban farmer) Courtney Guerra

 

Former chef and culinary UC Berkeley student, Courtney Guerra is dedicated to sourcing local food. She broke ground in her own backyard, called The Flower Ave garden, in January this year; it is an exercise borne out of a sheer will to showcase the importance of cultivating a healthy relationship with food. So profound is her appreciation for quality produce, and so strong is her desire to share the story of grow-your-own, that it inspired a partnership with Chef Ari Taymor of downtown LA restaurant, Alma. Now, her garden produces a harvest specifically for the restaurant.

 

With just over 700 square feet of growing space, Guerra utilizes every inch of her backyard garden to accommodate the restaurant’s requirements. “Learning what to grow for Chef Taymor, and how much, is still a work in progress,” she says. Rather than grow say, tomatoes, which take up a lot of space, Guerra chooses crops “like West Indian Burr Gherkins, which are not found in the farmers markets” and which make sense to plant in the Flower Ave Garden. At this point in the farmer-chef evolution, Guerra says, “we work together.” She continues, “There are things that I decide on my own to grow, and there are things that Chef Taymor would like, so I find the seeds or plants and they are now growing in the garden.” Currently, the garden brims with esoteric crops including ice lettuce, the gherkin cucumbers, Agretti, fresh goji berries, alpine strawberries, and even snails used for escargot. alma-la.com

 

Post and Beam, Chef Govind Armstrong

 

In 2012, Home Grown Edible Landscapes, an urban farming company owned and operated by Geri Miller, installed an impressive and functional garden at Post and Beam. This summer, fava beans, peppers, summer squash, and heirloom tomatoes will be harvested for a restaurant menu that includes a garden pizza, alongside fragrant herbs including thyme, sage, chives, basil, and mint. Post and Beam hosts regular garden classes that are open to the community. They are also home to a healthy population of happy honeybees. postandbeamla.com

 

N/Naka, Chef Niki Nakayama

 

In collaboration with Los Angeles’ urban farming group Farmscape, Chef Niki Nakayama cultivates the restaurant garden in her home’s backyard to supplement and inspire her menu at N/Naka. To create true kaiseki*, tentative and organic farming methods are practiced to produce the quality ingredients that N/Naka features on its menu. This summer’s crops will produce tomatoes, baby corn, kabocha squash, shishito peppers, baby Japanese eggplants, and, hopefully, French strawberries too. n-naka.com

*Kaiseki is a highly ritual Japanese meal characterized by small portions, subtle flavors, artful presentation, and an emphasis on fresh seasonal ingredients. (Merriam-Webster)

 

mar’sel at Terranea, Chef Rebecca Merhej

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The garden at mar’sel was also installed by Home Grown Edible Landscapes. The staff maintains a citrus garden of lemons, limes, and oranges, as well as an array of seasonal herbs, and plots of bulkier crops including carrots, beets, asparagus, broccoli, mizuna, kale, radishes, and onions. Chef Rebecca Merhej creates a sophisticated, classically Californian menu that offers guests a unique dining experience. terranea.com/marsel

 

 

 

Los Angeles is a small, albeit powerful, part of a movement that is informing its public about the origin of their food. Not only does this drive curiosity, but people are starting to take notice of what constitutes fresh produce. When people see what food looks like in its natural state, whether growing in the backyard or while dining on an exquisite meal harvested from the chef’s restaurant garden, they enjoy the story of food. They gain an understanding of what it takes to make produce come to life, which gives enormous hope for the future of community food.

 

 

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