CLEGourmand: The Chef’s Garden
Posted by cmh gourmand on December 21, 2010
There is a world class grow to order farm which is the darling of almost every chef you have heard of and many more you have not. The Chef’s Garden is in Huron Ohio and while many have driven by it on their way to Cedar Point few in Ohio know the international reputation this garden has with the culinary elite of the world. The Chef’s Garden is a Mecca for hot, haute chefs from all corners of the planet.
The genesis of Chef’s Garden is very humble and actually more than a little sad. In 1982, a nineteen-year-old Lee Jones watched the farm his family had owned for generations sold off item by item at a Sherriff’s sale. He described the experience as watching your soul being sliced out one piece at a time. The family started again with six acres and three battered trucks that no one wanted to buy or tow from the Jones fields. What saved the farm and launched this garden of the culinary stars? A zucchini bloom and a cute chef.
The family was selling what they had out of truck beds at various farmers markets. Lee Jones met Iris Bailin when she came looking for zucchini blossoms. Because she was attractive and insistent, Lee Jones paid attention. Over time, the family learned to cater to the whims of many chefs, growing by request and supplying a demand for food grown for flavor instead of yield. It took a long time (the family did not pay the tag fees on their battered trucks for five years). A few chefs became regulars then their peers became intrigued as word and tastes were spread by mouth.
Today Chef’s Garden grows over 600 kinds of vegetables and herbs year round including over 60 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. They changed the rules of traditional farming by finding a niche catering to chef’s needs. The farm balances innovations with some old school farming techniques. The sustainable farm has over year round 130 employees (with benefits, health insurance and paid at a livable wage). Every plant is bar coded and tracked from seed to table catalogued in a computer system so the entire history of each seed and planting is known. This allows customized enhancements to plants by growing the best of the best from the previous year. The farm uses root cellars and cold frames to grow year round. Micro greens are harvested with hand scissors. Crops are rotated and grown naturally without chemicals. Visitors often remark that this is food that tastes like……food, with real true flavors that they distantly remember eating at a grandparents table or maybe the Garden of Eden. It is not uncommon for an order to go from field to plate in twenty-four hours (produce is shipped to 2500 chefs around the world). Some of the Chef’s Garden equipment is from the 1940’s while other tools have been designed by their own workers to enhance their productivity and quality of work life. For example, one platform was designed on site so that harvest can be done laying down so employee farmers do not get back injuries from repetitive bending and kneeling.
The food focused, forward thinking frontman and Chief Farming Officer is Farmer Lee Jones. Within about fifteen seconds of meeting him, I was enchanted by the passion he has for what he does and the food the farm grows. He even gets excited speaking about the plates in the chef’s test kitchen at sibling spinoff Veggie U. Jones practices what he preaches by focusing on flavor, consistency and food safety instead of mega farm volume. The industrially produced foods we eat as well as how our nation farms has affected our waistlines and the bottom line of our economy for a long time. Jones would like to change that one bite at a time. Food should taste good so if you treat every aspect of growing and preparing it with respect and passion then you can farm for flavor and make a profit instead of farming to subsist on unhealthy as well as unsustainable foods and business models. I drank the food first Kool Aid pitch that Farmer Jones was pontificating due to his passion and sincerity. I believed it because I tasted the finished product and experienced flavors I had never tasted before. I was sold. You can check with the farm for a tour or you can pretend you are a Top Chef and order directly from Chef’s Garden. I would do both if given the opportunity.
9009 Huron-Avery Road