Jose Salome, chef de cuisine at 29 South in Fernandina Beach, can often be seen walking with guests through the restaurant’s garden discussing vegetables on the menu. These moments give Salome the opportunity to help customers better connect with the food on their plates. The very ingredients they discuss in the garden will be served minutes later, making their dining experience exponentially more meaningful and delicious.
“It’s a worldwide movement,” Salome says. For some, on-site gardening is about ensuring that the freshest quality vegetables make it onto the menu and for others it serves to reduce the extensive carbon footprint of transporting food. For 29 South’s chef and owner, Chef Scott Schwartz, it is a combination of both.
Eight years ago, the barren lot adjacent to 29 South provided little more than parking space for his guests. A few of his staff members were building a community garden in Fernandina, and approached Schwartz about planting a garden in the lot. Schwartz, having recently returned from an inspiring gastro-tour of Napa Valley, was immediately intrigued. “The next day we started clearing the lot and building the garden,” he says. “In a matter of months, we had seeds in the ground.”
Ryan Graycheck, garden manager at 29 South.
The garden is a great source of pride for Schwartz’s staff. The kitchen staff takes shifts to water, weed and work in the garden. He finds that his team cares so much more for the food they serve when they have had a hand in growing it. “That is precious food,” Schwartz beams.
Greens harvested from the garden have a longer shelf life.
It also provides more versatility when designing seasonal menus. “When you work with a farm, you get what you get,” Salome adds, “but with a garden you can be inspired. My peace and tranquility can translate onto the menu.”
Chef de Cuisine Jose Salome and Chef Scott Schwartz checking the muscadine vines in the restaurant garden.
Schwartz is quick to point out that he still relies on local farms and conscious providers to supplement his kitchen. Terms like “organic” and phrases like “farm-to-table” are commonplace these days, and according to Schwartz, they have become overused and are losing their meaning. For him, food is about relationships, and it takes time to get to know the farmers that are practicing sustainable farming.
“Our palates have become accustomed to ‘factory’ food, and when you try a freshly grown carrot, for example, it tastes incredible,” Schwartz says.
Running a business, a kitchen and a garden can be overwhelming, and as many restaurateurs who have embarked on nurturing on-site gardens will share, it takes both dedication and a rethinking of the common restaurant business model. Most flat out state that in order to have an on-site garden, restaurants must retool the common budget-driven mentality.
“Growing vegetables on site is not a money venture. It is a culture venture. It is an educational venture. Restaurants all over the world face the same set of issues, and what better way to address those issues than by climbing on the roof and putting in the work.” — Barbara Bredehoeft
Barbara Bredehoeft, owner and burgeoning gardener at bb’s restaurant in San Marco has done just that. Unlike 29 South, bb’s is located in an urban core neighborhood, which offers unique challenges, like space, when it comes to the viability of on-site vegetables. Encouraged by her son, who had just finished a biology degree a little over a year ago, Bredehoeft took it upon herself to solve the space issue by planting a garden on the roof of her building. The task was monumental, as the team had to plan not only for the limitation of space, but for the lack of shade. Creative thinking led to adding Meyer lemon trees and fig trees to the garden roofscape to mitigate the sun exposure on the plants.
Chef Wesley Noguiera with freshly harvested rosemary.
Chef Wesley Noguiera, Barabara Bredehoeft and the team at bb’s tend seedlings.
“It was a lot more work than I could have ever imagined,” Bredehoeft says, “but people are fascinated by our rooftop garden. It’s like art; it’s a conversation piece.”
bb’s executive chef, Wesley Noguiera, treats the ingredients from his garden with precise care, elevating them on the plate. “I had to change my approach to my menu, because I want to use my food wisely. I want it to be the focus,” Chef Noguiera shares.
Customers often ask him questions about his constantly changing menu. He plans it ahead based on what he wants to plant in the garden. “As a chef, you have to care about every piece of food in the kitchen, because it takes time and attention to grow the food,” he says.
“Oh, it’s a ton of work,” Bredehoeft says, “but it is also so cool and fun to be consumed by what our guests consume.”
Restaurants are moving away from longer, seasonal menu cycles and more towards innovative weekly cycles that showcase exactly what has been seeded, cared for, grown and harvested on site. Daily specials reflect the hard work and dedication of teams inspired by the food they grow.
“Growing vegetables on site is not a money venture,” Bredehoeft says. “It is a culture venture. It is an educational venture. Restaurants all over the world face the same set of issues, and what better way to address those issues than by climbing on the roof and putting in the work.”
Chef Noguiera agrees. “This [on-site gardens] shouldn’t be about showing off. They should be about making an impact on your community,” he adds. “If one little garden goes up here, another small garden is started over there and another one is started somewhere else, pretty soon we will have created a great, big garden.”