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 place.
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. His tidy kitchen garden, planted in neat raised beds on the front yard of Fresh Hamptons on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, provides him with fresh herbs, mesclun, and Swiss chard. Over the summer, thanks to his gardener Phil Manzo, Jacobs provided 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 get something they can’t get elsewhere.” The majority of local produce served at Fresh is grown at Dale & Bette’s Farm, just down the road from the restaurant.
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 studied local planting and growing techniques with Dale Haubrich of Dale & Bette’s Farm. Negron began planting and tending kitchen gardens for area restaurants in 2009 on his own, 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,” says Negron.
One of the gardens Negron maintains is the one-acre kitchen garden at 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 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 over-wintered Brussels sprouts, which offered something truly unusual: freshly harvested local sprouts in the early spring.
The Bridgehampton Inn is currently involved in a construction project, adding six guest rooms to its original six. Chef Arie Pavlou is ecstatic that, despite the construction, the Inn is able to maintain a small herb garden for his use. The herb garden was planted just about a month after the Inn opened its restaurant this past June. It had been a long-held dream of co-owner Sybille van Kempen to expand the Inn’s restaurant and to open it to the public. The Inn’s reliance on the most local ingredients available dates back many more years in that, when van Kempen’s mother and co-owner of the Inn, Anna Pump bought her first East End business, the Loaves & Fishes Gourmet Take-Out store in Sagaponack in 1980, she immediately put in an onsite herb and vegetable garden.
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 Matt Guiffrida has installed two raised beds adjacent to the restaurant’s patio and is growing herbs for use in the restaurant’s dishes and in their specialty cocktails. So diners at Muse can enjoy the freshest sage, oregano, mint, rosemary, lavender, thyme and dill.
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!