There’s a small corner of the restaurant world where food is art and the plate is just as exquisite as the mouthful.
In this world, chefs are constantly looking for new creative materials for the next stunning presentation.
The tiny community of farmers who grow vegetables for the elite chefs prize creativity, too, not just in what they grow but in how they grow it. They’re seeking perfection, in vegetable form and flavor, like this tiny cucumber that looks like a watermelon — called a cucamelon.
The Chef’s Garden is a specialty vegetable farm in Huron, Ohio, about an hour west of Cleveland. It’s a family farm, where three generations of the Jones family work side by side with about 175 employees. It’s a place where vegetables are scrupulously selected and then painstakingly coaxed from the ground.
This farm produces an extraordinary selection of vegetable varieties, ranging from the familiar to the exotic, like the cucamelon. In the summer, they can offer chefs 80 varieties of tomatoes. Through the year, they’re growing more than a dozen kinds of lettuce of different textures and colors, like Merlot, in their greenhouses.
“What we’re trying to do is offer new colors of paint to the chef. It’s not just about color … it’s flavor and texture. It needs to taste good, and if it doesn’t it has no place,” says Lee Jones, who runs Chef’s Garden with his father and brother.
When Lee Jones (who wears this ensemble of blue overalls, white shirt and red bow tie every single day) was a teenager, his family grew ordinary vegetables for the wholesale market, like a lot of their neighbors. Then in 1983, the Joneses went bankrupt and lost almost all their land. All they could do with the few acres that were left was supply a small stand at local farmers markets.
One of their customers was a food writer in Cleveland desperate to find the squash blossoms she’d tasted in France and couldn’t find in America. So they went back to the zucchini patch and picked some for her. She was ecstatic, and they began to realize there were unmet needs in the world of fine dining.
It wasn’t too long before the Joneses began to get connected to chefs around the country — people like Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller. The great French chef Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate in Washington, D.C., told them, ” ‘Your food is s*** in America,’ ” Lee recalls. In particular, he was talking about the vegetables. And he told them they could seize the opportunity to grow vegetables to the standards of chefs like him.
There’s a movement now of farmers like the Joneses who “really aspire to be the best, where it’s not a commodity anymore — it’s actually about the process that will result in something extraordinary,” says Chef Thomas Keller.
The farm covers 300 acres and supplies chefs all year round, with the help of greenhouses and hoop houses that can be moved from plot to plot in the winter.
The Joneses say they need to always have something new to offer the chefs. So they have a “secret” experimental garden and greenhouse where they test new varieties. Visitors are not allowed inside.
“When we find a new crop, we have two years before [other farmers] start to copy us,” says Bob Jones Sr., Lee’s father and the patriarch of Chef’s Garden.
Attention to detail flows through every step of the farming, harvesting and shipping process. And it all starts with the soil.
“If you don’t have good soil, you have nothing,” says Bob.
The soil on this farm gets remarkably special treatment.
The Joneses are fortunate that their farm is located just a few miles inland from Lake Erie. That means they started with some of the richest sandy loam soil in the world, formed from thousands of years of deposits from the lake bottom.
But they’ve dedicated themselves to improving it by resting the soil and adding nutrients to deepen the layer of topsoil year after year.
The way they do that is by planting only one-third of their land (100 acres) with vegetables at any one time.
The remaining 200 acres are sown with cover crops like Sudan grass, oats and clover that return nitrogen and other nutrients that the vegetables take out.
“If you would talk to the farmers around here, they think we’re crazy. They think we’re absolutely ready for the loony bin,” says Bob, “because we do things so much different.”
Rotating crops and cover cropping this way is one of the secrets to the vegetables’ distinctive flavor, Bob says.
The Joneses, like the chefs, are always looking for surprising new varieties. Lee tries out the latest seeds from plant breeders and combs through dusty agricultural books.
“We didn’t discover any of these — we’re uncovering, rediscovering, reintroducing. There’s thousands of species of eggplant out there to be explored,” says Lee.
Another thing the Joneses try to tightly control is the seeds they put in the ground. If you buy thousands of them in bulk the way they do, many are bound to fail.
They check every batch for their germination rate to try to ensure they’re putting only the seeds most likely to succeed in the ground.
They also have a machine to sort seeds for size and weight to help them eliminate the weakest ones. The goal is to guarantee chefs a consistent product every time they need it.
“All this comes down to getting dependable production. We can’t get to February and say, ‘Aw, Chef, we can’t do it because the seed wouldn’t germinate.’ That doesn’t work,” says Bob.
There’s a whole lab at Chef’s Garden with a small staff dedicated to monitoring and measuring the seeds and the soil.
It’s just one branch of Chef’s Garden’s highly specialized staff, focused on different aspects of quality control. All together, they give this farm an unusual ratio of workers to acres: about one person per half-acre.
About 25 of the 178 employees are temporary workers who come mostly from the Aguascalientes region of Mexico to work nine months a year.
These workers pick everything to order — from the microgreens to the tiny eggplants and cucamelons.
Chefs ask for miniature versions of their favorites because when they’re small, they pack more flavor and make for stunning garnishes. And picking these crops is labor-intensive.
But if a chef wants 100 nasturtium flowers the size of a dime, Lee is happy to oblige — in part because he has the manpower to pick them.
Since there are so many stages in a plant’s life, the farm has developed an eight-stage, patented set of sizes, including micro, petite, young, flowering and seeded. Some vegetables come in every single size.
“At every single stage of the plant’s life, it offers something unique to the plate. We’ve learned how to look at that plant in a way that says, ‘Why not?’ ” says Lee.
The precise moment the crops are picked also matters if they’re going to be perfect. Take, for example, the squash blossoms, which are harvested during a narrow hour-and-a-half window in the early morning.
“You’re trying to walk past those ones that are waning, if you will, and pick that one that’s right today, in this particular moment, in this particular hour, the perfect squash bloom, so that it can go onto the plate and blow the guest away of that chef,” says Lee.
The same goes for the lettuce, which is harvested at dawn, when the air, the ground and the plants are coolest. The goal, particularly in the summer, is to harvest them at the lowest possible temperature so they can stay fresh longer.
By the time the vegetables reach the packing room, they’re treated like jewels.
Bob Jones Jr., Lee’s brother, oversees this stage, where lettuce rosettes are carefully packed with insulation. If the box is filled with tomatoes, it’s fitted with foam padding. In the summer, ice packs go into the boxes to keep the vegetables cold if they’re headed to hot locales.
Nearly all the vegetables that leave here by truck or airplane reach kitchens within a day of coming out of the ground.
Shipping vegetables from Ohio to California or New York or Florida means these vegetables most certainly won’t be local once they reach diners. They’ll have quite a few additional greenhouse gas emissions attached to them, too.
And if you’re buying this precious produce, it will, of course, cost you. The Joneses say their costs are probably 2.5 times as great as a regular production system’s, where every acre is farmed every year. A two-pound box of lettuce from Chef’s Garden goes for about $24.
But chefs will pay top dollar for these exquisite vegetables.
“If we’re not willing to pay for the extraordinary ingredients, then we’re not going to have the extraordinary ingredients,” says Chef Thomas Keller.
Chef’s Garden is starting to sell directly to consumers via mail order. And Lee is hopeful about this new frontier for the business.
“We know in the U.S. there’s a movement toward more healthy and fresh vegetables, so we’re trying to anticipate that and be ready for it. The chefs we work with can drive those trends. It is a trickle-down effect,” says Lee.
This has been a special multimedia project of NPR’s food blog, The Salt.