Farm-to-Table: As Local as It Gets

Farm-to-table is all the rage at Hamptons restaurants.
Farm-to-table is all the rage at Hamptons restaurants. Photo credit: letterberry/iStock/Thinkstock

Seasonal vegetables. Fresh picked. Straight from the garden. Right off the vine. Still damp with the dew. Still warm from the sun.

However you choose to say it, there are few food ideas that have caught on in recent years more completely than farm-to-table cooking. High-end diners who used to demand truffles direct from France now demand to know that their arugula was grown close by. High-end restaurant chefs who used to scour distant shores for rare or exotic ingredients now sing the praises of fresh, locally grown cauliflower. And those chefs, rather than basing their menus on food they’re flying in from remote places, are basing their menus on food that’s growing in their
own area.

Or maybe on food that’s growing right outside their kitchen door. The latest sign of the increasing interest in the local and seasonal is the return of the traditional kitchen garden. In the last few years, several Hamptons restaurants have begun to devote time and their own outdoor space to agriculture, planting herbs and vegetables and taking the idea of farm-to-table to the next level. It’s a trend that perfectly combines the area’s farming history with its current status as a destination for foodies.

One of the more visible kitchen gardens is the one at Fresh Hamptons, chef Todd Jacobs’ celebrated Bridgehampton restaurant. Already in this early part of the season, his tidy kitchen garden, planted in neat raised beds around the front yard of Fresh Hamptons on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, provides him with fresh Italian parsley, mesclun and swiss chard. As the season moves on, if all goes to his gardener Phil Manzo’s plans, Jacobs will be providing his patrons with an abundance of garden delights—among them two different kinds of cucumber as well as heirloom burgundy tomatoes, three varieties of beans including exotic Japanese asparagus beans and fresh edamame—all cut within hours of serving and bursting with flavor.

Manzo observes that kitchen gardens allow restaurants to serve items that really aren’t available otherwise. “Those particular heirloom tomatoes aren’t necessarily available through wholesalers, and so people who eat at Fresh Hamptons are going to get something they can’t get elsewhere. And these are going to be really good tomatoes.” Manzo also points out that when the Fresh Hamptons garden is fully grown, it will be a unique and beautiful sight along the Turnpike.

Of course, planting and tending the garden is time-consuming and involves its own specialized skills—even the most enthusiastic chef wouldn’t have the time and energy to run a restaurant and a garden. Like Phil Manzo at Fresh Hamptons, Jeff Negron helps plan and tend kitchen gardens for restaurants. Negron began planting and tending kitchen gardens for area restaurants in 2009, when he founded The Growing Seed, his company that specializes in consulting for and providing on-site vegetable gardens for restaurants and schools. Negron sees kitchen gardens catching on at restaurants all over the East End.

“It’s gaining a big foothold. Even if it’s just an herb garden, lots of restaurants are investing at least a small area in growing what they can.”

One of the gardens Negron maintains is the sizable kitchen garden at the Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton. In addition to providing freshness, the garden can help supplement what local farmers provide.

“Salad greens are always handy, in case the farms run short,” Negron notes. “We’ve also devoted space to perennial berries—strawberries and other perennials—for use in dessert items. They help because they’re a little more ornamental than row crops.” Appearance is a consideration at Topping Rose, as the garden there is part of the scenery for guests staying in the hotel, which is attached to the restaurant.

Negron has also been able to provide chefs with some unusual items from their own gardens. Last October, for example, Topping Rose harvested its first crop of cardoons—an edible thistle closely related to the artichoke. And in late March, he harvested 120 pounds of over-wintered Brussels sprouts, giving his restaurants the opportunity to offer something truly unusual: freshly-harvested local sprouts in the early spring.

Even restaurants that don’t have the adequate grounds for a kitchen garden are getting in on the act. At Muse in the Harbor in Sag Harbor, the ever resourceful Chef/owner Matthew Guiffrida has installed two raised beds adjacent to the restaurant’s patio to grow herbs for use in the restaurant’s dishes and in their specialty cocktails. So diners at Muse can look forward to even fresher sage, oregano, mint, rosemary, lavender, thyme and dill this summer.

So next time you order up your mixed-green salad, don’t just ask if the greens are organic. Don’t just ask if they’re local. Don’t just ask when they were picked. Go ahead and ask to see the garden. Who knows—maybe they’ll let you pick your own salad.

Now that’s fresh!

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