The rise of 'farm-to-fork': the best restaurants that grow their own produce

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There are few things I love more than seeing dishes on a menu with the label ‘home grown’. Those two words, to me, communicate so much. They indicate a restaurant that is endeavouring to provide sustainable dishes to its customers, management who care about the origins and quality of their ingredients, waiting staff who can tell me the exact journey of a meal from the soil is was grown in to the technique it was cooked with. This ever-appealing phenomenon is known as ‘farm-to-fork’ dining, and it is not just me who has become enamoured with the organic approach to foodservice.

Discussing the biggest bar and restaurant trends set to take off in 2017, Ian Thomas, CEO of Bartlett Mitchell, told The Caterer:

“Taking a seasonal, fresh and local approach to buying produce will be of paramount importance, as well as looking to chefs to develop sustainable menus that can meet the ever-changing needs of the consumer without having huge cost implications. Many recent food trends point to an increase in vegan and vegetarian-based concepts – something which is likely to be enhanced if we need to become more reliant on using produce sourced from only the UK.”

In fact, in almost every industry report and trend forecast I have come across, home-grown produce has come out as a key player for the coming years. Consumers are coming to care more about where their food comes from, and they expect this to extend into the restaurant sphere, and even the bars they frequent. Whether it’s cottage-garden potatoes with your pan-fried fish or windowsill mint leaves and orchard-grown garnishes in your apple martinis, home-grown is the new mark of quality.

Why do home-grown?

Fresh dish

So it’s clear that consumers see home-grown ingredients as a positive on menus, but what real incentive is there for bars and restaurants to undertake this long-term commitment? According to experts, there are countless benefits to cultivating a self-sufficient approach to produce sourcing, from ethical reasons to financial advantages. Simon Ward, Managing Editor at award-winning food website loveFOOD.com, explains:

“With more people looking at provenance and ‘food miles’ when they both shop for food and eat out, restaurants that grow their own ingredients can benefit hugely from this trend. It allows them to present seasonal food at its freshest, from garden to plate in a matter of hours, and it’s also cheaper too.”

Clearly one of the primary reasons to consider beginning a kitchen garden would be its appeal to the conscious consumer who desires locally-sourced, organic ingredients. However, there are also various perks in farm-to-fork systems at every level of restaurant business. Polly Carter, gardener at Porthminster Café emphasises “the flexibility of being able to pop to the garden for pickings suits the creativity involved in experimenting with new flavours, combinations and dishes” as a key reason why home-grown produce can help chefs.

She continues to explain that home grown produce can also be the inspiration for new recipes in the kitchen:

“What’s good in the garden at a specific time or a new flavour from a newly grown herb can even be the inspiration for a dish. The practical convenience of growing kitchen staples in the garden means that chefs are able to pick fresh, even at night, torch in hand, making the most of this resource when they need it, even when every second counts in the kitchen. As well as the flexibility, freshness of flavour, convenience and creativity the garden inspires, it also connects the chefs directly to seasonality, which is important if you are to get the best out of your produce, use the freshest flavours and is important to many food consumers for both health and ethical reasons.”

The creativity prompted by home-grown produce in the kitchen can be infectious, inspiring waiting staff to learn about the methods used in the garden to up-sell home-grown dishes, and giving you ideas on new plants to grow that you might not have considered before. Polly explains, “As a gardener it is really exciting getting feedback on the plants you grow from the chefs. Something you grew for the edible flowers gets used for the foliage in new and interesting ways you hadn’t anticipated”. This can be beneficial for future dishes, giving new ideas on what could be grown for various uses. She says, “learning what sorts of flavours and looks the chefs go for in their picking for the plate encourages me to branch out to try similar plants related to those favourites, making the growing an evolving process rather than a fixed growing ‘system.’”

Three success stories

Bell Book and Candle, U.S.A

Bell Book and Candle is a restaurant in New York City that serves high-end dishes curated around the availability of local, organic and responsible produce. This eclectic venue takes inspiration from the many cultures coexisting in North America, serving delectable dishes such as crispy fried oysters in a green chilli buttermilk dressing and “Gin & Tonic” salmon with a leek and potato purée, crème fraîche, green beans and grilled oyster mushrooms.

John Mooney, Chef and co-owner of the restaurant, explains why he believes it is important to grow produce at the restaurant itself:

“I believe in keeping our food source as close to home as possible. We minimize our carbon footprint that way. Also, we cut our herbs when we need them. Our lettuce stays living until we consume it. Our tomatoes are hand-picked when ripe and never refrigerated. This is just to name a few benefits.”

But how exactly does John assure that this can be the case, and – more importantly – how does his garden work? He explains:

“I use an aeroponic system on my restaurants NYC, DC, Oahu Hawaii. My system grows vertically to better manage space and maximize our production. We don't use any pesticide, [instead] we use predatory insects. This helps to protect our bee population. Even if you use bio-insecticide, the bees still consume it.”

Sustainability is a key concern in the growing systems at Bell Book and Candle. John uses a gravity-fed irrigation system, explaining, “We use less than 10 per cent of the water necessary to grow the same crop conventionally.” Not only does this reduce the restaurant’s use of limited natural resources, it also increases efficiency in the garden itself: “We have rapid growth due to no resistance from the soil. For example, a tomato that typically finishes its cycle in 110 days will complete its cycle in 90 days from my system.”

The Star Inn at Harome, Helmsley

Lobster salad, The Star Inn

Closer to home, The Star Inn at Harome is a restaurant championing home-grown produce from the idyllic setting of the North Yorkshire Moors. This Michelin-starred venue dates back to the 14th century, but its attitude towards sourcing ingredients is decidedly modern. Firmly rooted in the county’s local environment, their dishes include everything from village-shot Roe deer cooked over charcoal with spiced ginger parkin, anise-scented carrot purée, and game juices to Yorkshire-reared pork tenderloin with homemade ‘morcilla’, belly, pancetta, brawn croquette treacle-glazed cheek, and mulled Yorkshire cider.

Andrew Pern is the Michelin-starred chef and owner of The Star Inn, and he told us:

“We were lucky to have a small paddock behind our pub. With a little help from Jo Campbell (who went on to work in Raymond Blanc’s famous garden at Le Manoir), we established as a potager-style kitchen garden in 2008.” Acknowledging the lengthy process that home-growing can entail, he notes, “Whilst we have learnt a lot about what works best for us and what to grow, the layout of the garden still has the structure that Jo established for us – and so our first tip would be to get help from a professional!”

When we asked him what he felt were the perks of having a kitchen garden and using home-grown crops, Andrew commented that doing so “adds an element of just-picked freshness to our dishes, particularly things like herbs and edible flowers. Clearly, the main beneficiaries are our customers and we find that new chefs joining our kitchen learn a lot about the herbs they are using too. We have a huge outside dining table, which is the perfect place for a leisurely summer lunch whilst watching the garden grow!”

L'Enclume

One trailblazing restaurant that is setting a standard for sustainable home-growing is the iconic riverside venue, L'Enclume. Situated in Cartmel, this gastronomic establishment uses creative cooking techniques to showcase their delicious home-grown and hand-picked ingredients cultivated in the heart of Cumbria.

Here, the dining experience is as traceable as it is delectable. As guests work their way through the stunning tasting menu, each dish is presented by waiters who are famously versed in the origins and cooking of even the most minuscule of items. This harmonious marriage of environmental ethics, local sourcing and superb cooking are quite staggering, as Matthew Norman revealed in his 10/10 review of L'Enclume, saying the food was "a minor miracle of immaculately matched but distinct flavours that seemed to reveal themselves at carefully timed intervals."

Chef and owner Simon Rogan comments on how home-grown produce contributes to such an achievement:

"We grow our own ingredients because we fundamentally believe in strengthening the link between produce, its development, the environment and what we eat. Through year-round growing on Our Farm we are afforded complete control over the ingredients we use in our kitchen and are able to enjoy the freshest and most diverse seasonal produce. Our Farm is characterised by a complete dedication to detail that is mirrored in our cooking.”

Porthminster Café

Lunching with joy at my favourite Cornish location- @porthminstercafe

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Of course, different climates will yield different crop-growing capabilities, particularly if you intend to avoid extensive greenhouse systems and poly-tunnels. At Porthminster Café in St Ives, Cornwall, the mild coastal temperatures enable gardener Polly Carter to grow a variety of plants for their multi-award-winning Mediterranean and Asian seafood menus. Here, guests can dine on a whole grilled Cornish lobster from the nearby shores, served with mornay sauce, asparagus, and crispy fried new potatoes or Cornish oysters with pickled vegetables, all seasoned with herbs straight from the café’s kitchen garden.

Polly explains how the café decided to start growing their own garden:

“At Porthminster Café we are incredibly fortunate to be positioned on the beach, at the edge of a coast path, with wild landscape all around us. The restaurant adopted and cultivated the patch of discarded land opposite as part of a natural continuation of the foraging the chefs were doing.  It made sense to them to make use of the wild and delicious greens, herbs and flowers available to them, as fresh at it gets, on their doorstep.”

Since the garden was first formed, the café has seen huge benefits, and as a result has been expanding their grown produce each year. She says, “Through selective weeding, the garden brought some of the wild food even closer to the restaurant for ease of picking but also provided the opportunity to grow specific crops required for signature dishes, such as courgettes flowers. Things that require fresh picking for flavour and quality were introduced such a micro herbs and salad crops, along with Mediterranean herbs, a kitchen staple sometimes required in quantity when at other times just a sprig will do.” Growing your own produce, then, not only provides freshness, but also the freedom to use what you need without wasting ingredients or over-spending on supplier orders.

Tips for growing your own produce

Woman picking tomatoes and peppers

Whilst many of us recognise how fulfilling it can be to provide farm-to-fork options in our menus, maintaining a sustainable farm-to-fork program requires some forethought. However, it is not as difficult to achieving as you may think. These expert tips can help you plan your perfect kitchen garden and make your business a thriving hub of home-grown goodness.

Be realistic

The first step in undertaking a kitchen garden is to be realistic with your aims. John Mooney advises, “My recommendations for starting your own kitchen garden would be start out small. Use planter boxes for your windows and start with herbs. Rosemary, thyme and sage are very resilient and require low maintenance. Basil is also fairly easy to maintain.” This will allow even the smallest of cafes to cultivate a few items, it would also be brilliant for bars whose primary use for planting would be herbs to garnish cocktails.

Polly agrees, commenting that “aiming to grow all the veg on the menu might not be possible or cost effective.” Instead, think about what you can grow in your area, and be savvy about what you need. Polly adds, “Making the most of the opportunity to grow for the kitchen might mean choosing things that are either unavailable otherwise, don’t travel well or don’t retain flavour unless picked fresh. Go for crops that cut and come again like herbs, edible flowers and salad crops to maximise your output and for convenience of picking.”

Take it slow

Another important element to bear in mind are the timescales that home-growing can entail. Often, your yield may not be particularly plentiful in the first season of growing, but be patient, as this is a long-term project that will only increase in success over time. The advice from Polly is to start out small, growing things you know will flourish on your site, and that chefs attest can be incorporated into their changing menus. After all, you can always increase the quantity grown the following season. 

Polly offers some important word of wisdom on this point:

“Think of having a garden as an ongoing process and opportunity to experiment. Each garden has a set of growing conditions that some plants will love and others hate and the only way to really discover what will thrive is to try things out.”

Re-define weeds

One mistake that many new gardeners make when growing produce is unnecessarily removing some of the native species in their garden. An experienced horticulturist will be able to spot the edible species from the inedible, but for the uninitiated, it is still worth keeping an open mind and doing your research before stripping the soil.

“I’m a believer in only selective weeding”, Polly explains. “Many things people instinctively weed out of their gardens are edible and delicious, such as hairy bittercress and wild mustard.  Work with your garden rather than against it, if certain things like growing there, and they can be used, let them be and find a way to use them.”

Garden to kitchen communication

“The most important thing, though,” Polly says, “is to keep a dialogue going between grower and chefs.” If you are employing a gardener as Porthminster Café has, it is worth getting chefs into the garden to help out so that they can cultivate an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes. Polly explains, “The exchange that occurs is mutually beneficial and the inspiration and culture cultivated in this way will feed into the overall passion for food, which can only be a good thing for the restaurant as a whole.”