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Unless your dining regimen is limited to all-day breakfast at McDonald’s, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “farm-to-table.” The term’s been as overplayed as “small plates” and “craft cocktails.” Some restaurants are now even exercising restraint in telling diners that their meat and produce are sourced from nearby farms, simply because it’s so common. 

But if diners are picturing a scenario in which a farmer with muddied boots drops full crates of just-picked vegetables on a restaurant’s stoop, they’re sorely mistaken, according to Chef Eric Ziebold of Kinship and Métier who grows his own produce at an off-site location. 

“Farm-to-table has become a catchphrase over the past six to eight years, but in my jaded opinion, I think that it’s become farm to co-op to distributor to warehouse to restaurant to walk-in to prep table to a diner’s plate,” he says. “That’s a lot different than produce coming in and getting used today,” he says.

Many chefs eager to get their hands on the freshest set of nature’s candy are, like Ziebold, springing for chef gardens either on property or off. But are these patches of soil that grow everything from herbs and vegetables to fresh-cut flowers just trophies to boast about or are they actual treasure?

“I think they’re a little of both,” says Chef Mike Friedman of The Red Hen. The Bloomingdale restaurant has a swatch of land that had originally been slated for outdoor seating but is now seeded and maintained by urban farming company Love & Carrots.

Friedman grows only “secondary or tertiary items” like basil, oregano for sauces, and sage. “It’s just something nice to have so people can see it if they’re dining on the banquets,” Friedman says. “It’s not something we promote.”

Chef Joe Palma at Bourbon Steak inside the Four Seasons has never wanted to oversell his chef’s garden. “Let’s be honest, we all do things for PR, but whatever we’re doing to help write stories has to have some heft, ” he says. The goal is to tell stories that resonate with press and with guests that aren’t #FakeNews. “I don’t want to have just five percent of it be true.”

The hotel decided to tear out its chef’s garden nine months ago. It was on a roof that sprung a leak over the pool. Palma says that instead of replanting it for his menu, it’ll be utilized by head bartender Torrence Swain for cocktails. “He can get more mileage out of it for tinctures and bitters as compared to the kitchen, which could decimate a basil plant five minutes into service.” 

While the experience had some benefits, Palma cautions others about taking on a chef’s garden because of the costs. “It’s a pretty big financial investment if you’re actually laying things into the ground.” 

There’s no question that the rooftop garden at Gravitas coming to Ivy City in late summer is a major expenditure. Chef Matt Baker says installation alone will cost $120,000, and he’s hired a full-time gardener who will nurture it year-round. “There’s nothing gimmicky about it for me,” he says. “There’s nothing for me to benefit from unless it’s functional. If not, then I’m an idiot for blowing my finite budget for nothing.”

The garden, which will take up half of the restaurant’s roof, will include a mix of traditional beds as well as vertical towers with carrots, beets, herbs, lettuces, hard leafy greens, bok choy, tomatoes, and more. The other half will be for the Greenhouse Bar, where Baker’s going for an intimate Columbia Room feel, only with verdant, secret garden surroundings.

Having a lush garden fits the mission of the plant-forward restaurant, which will offer a regular tasting menu and a vegetarian tasting menu. Baker says his goal is to grow 70 to 80 percent of the produce he needs. “When I interviewed our gardener, I said, ‘You’re the number one most important person in the restaurant—you dictate what’s on the menu every week.’”  

While Baker doesn’t expect the endeavor to lead to cost savings, the garden is more than just a source for his restaurant’s produce. Baker sits on the board of Brainfood—a local youth-development organization—and plans to incorporate the garden into after-school curriculum. “The students will come once or twice a week, spend time with the gardener, and spend time in the kitchen,” he explains.

Anything left over will be donated to community members, Baker says. “I’ve been doing research, and Ivy City is one of the most food insecure neighborhoods in D.C.”

Gravitas isn’t the only restaurant committing significant resources to a chef’s garden. Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria has a 1,260-square-foot rooftop garden that Executive Chef Keith Cabot tends about 50 hours a week during the peak season with Neighborhood Restaurant Group Jack-of-all-trades Jonathan Stark.

They grow lettuce, sorrel, celery, radishes, carrots, arugula, kale, shishito peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and more. Cabot is planning a bumper crop of the shishito peppers. “We’re planting 300 plants hoping that we can serve them with house-made feta as a snack,” he says. Guests can’t see the garden, but Cabot will point out when he can, either verbally or via the menu, which products are grown on-site. 

Like Baker, Cabot isn’t motivated by cost savings. He says the only time there’s a chance to catch a break is by growing something in a large quantity like those shishito peppers. Something like a watermelon requires too much space and time to grow a single piece of fruit, which Cabot could easily purchase for $4 from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. 

So why do it? “What it comes down to is you can’t get a product that’s better,” Cabot says. “It doesn’t matter how local it is. … I’m pulling stuff from the roof today, and it’s going on the menu in a couple of hours.” 

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Just ask L’Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, Virginia, which first installed a chef’s garden in 1976. The garden was initially a necessity because late Chef François Haeringer couldn’t find shallots and certain herbs he needed to bring his native Alsatian cuisine to the D.C. area. Four decades later, there are now two gardens encompassing 10,100 square feet maintained by a head gardener, a team of maintenance workers, and current Chef Jacques Haeringer.

The gardens are no longer strictly necessary, but dining room manager Marc Haeringer (Jacques’ son) says the major undertaking remains a worthwhile and critical part of the operation.

“It allows us to have the exact things that we want, and they haven’t traveled,” he says. “They’re fresh. The value of having something from a few feet away is unbeatable.” 

If you’ve dined at this suburban charmer in the summer, you’ve no doubt tried the garden tomato salad that Marc says guests clamor for.

The garden has also given way to unintended benefits such as building relationships in the community. “We didn’t know there was a 10-acre farm down the street from us,” Marc explains. “They saw our garden and reached out to us.” Now the restaurant trades food scraps for fresh eggs. “Our soufflés are made from eggs down the street, and it all came about because of our garden—it’s not just about attracting customers.”

Ziebold says he wouldn’t recommend a chef’s garden for every restaurant because “certain aspects of it can be a pain,” but he’s happy to have forged ahead for reasons similar to those of L’Auberge Chez Francois. 

His plot for growing produce and flowers for Kinship and Métier is out in Virginia wine country on the grounds of the RdV Vineyards. Ziebold says he usually gets in a couple visits leading up to May, but then is out there almost every week from June through September. Opening two fine dining restaurants in one year means Ziebold’s plate is full, but he makes time because the garden affords him both greater control and opportunities to be creative. 

“There are some things we want to be a specific size,” he explains. For example, the spring garlic he grows to make spring garlic soup is considerably bigger than what he could source from a produce supplier, which buys him significant time in the kitchen because he doesn’t have to preen hundreds of tiny sprigs to make three cups of liquid.

The garden also puts Ziebold in a reactionary position, which is how creativity is born. For example, the former French Laundry chef was leaving a garden store last summer and sprung for four lemongrass plants that proliferated dramatically, allowing him to harvest 40 pounds of the herb most commonly used in Thai cuisine. While Ziebold’s menus have some Asian influence, he still had to finagle applications for it, and in doing so he happened on an undiscovered combination—lemongrass and beets.

Asked whether he would recommend gardens to other chefs, Ziebold qualifies: “I would with some caveats—it’s not the right thing to do for everybody,” he says. The relatively small size of his restaurants and his ability to be spontaneous and reprint menus make it advantageous. “Just make sure it’s not just an expensive hobby.” 

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com