Look around any restaurant kitchen and youll see wipe-off boards covered with lists prep lists, purchase lists, work lists.
Heres one list from the kitchen board in Customshop, a restaurant in Charlottes Elizabeth neighborhood:
From the garden: Heirloom tomatoes, jalapenos, banana peppers, cayenne peppers, padron peppers, shishito peppers, eggplant, savoy cabbage, okra, sage, parsley, oregano, rosemary.
Everyone on the staff is expected to come up with ideas for using that list, the daily harvest from the 2,000-square-foot garden in chef/owner Trey Wilsons backyard.
They get crazy-excited about it, says Wilson.
There are plenty of reasons why chefs dont grow their own food: Lack of space, lack of time and long hours that are tough enough.
Chefs are working 12 hours a day already, admits Bill Schutz, who hopes to eventually add at least a container garden at Bonterra in Dilworth. But he isnt there yet.
A lot of people talk about it. Ill get there.
Anyone who gardens knows the pleasures of freshly picked food. For chefs, its even more satisfying to have such a close relationship with their ingredients.
You have a better understanding of food if you grow it yourself, Wilson says. You have a better understanding of flavors. Pick it too early, its bitter. Too late, it wont last.
This summer, Wilson has gone crazy with peppers: Hot ones, sweet ones, heirloom ones. He grows them specifically for a particular mussel dish.
Sometimes he grows things and finds a way to use them, and sometimes he comes up with a dish and then grows what he needs for it.
You get so much flavor off of organically grown, just-picked vegetables. Its double the flavor.
Finding a use for everything
Chad McIntyre used to grow in containers at the original location of his Raleigh café, The Market. Now hes moving to a new location that overlooks Raleigh City Farms, a community garden near Peace College that sells produce to local restaurants.
I could throw a rock and hit a tomato, says McIntyre.
McIntyre says growing something himself makes him value it more and be less likely to waste it.
It makes you aware, he says. For me, its been the bigger picture thing. For years and years, chefs would throw away product. Throw it in the stock pot. Ive gone in some kitchens and the stock pot, theyre filling it in a half-day.
Instead, he pushes to find uses for everything. He freezes fruits and berries, makes pickles, even dries tomatoes and grinds them up into tomato dust to sprinkle on dishes.
There are hundreds of recipes for savory pickles kimchees, sauerkraut. Those are home recipes, developed over thousands of years on farms. You can do them anywhere, in your penthouse downtown.
At SoCo Farm and Food in Wilson, southeast of Raleigh, Jeremy Laws restaurant took shape when Law and his wife moved to an 11-acre farm. When it comes to creative, Law takes the cake with his watermelon steak.
For a recent dinner for vegetarian friends, he cut watermelon into fat, round slices, brushed them with soy sauce and roasted them, first for 20 minutes at 450, then for a couple of hours at about 225 degrees.
Theyre real soft it comes out looking like rare hanger steaks. To work with just vegetables, it keeps you a little sharper.
Work, work, work
There are tricks to keeping garden duties in control. Wilson covers his soil with straw to keep down weeds. It also helps to plan carefully and make sure you dont plant more garden than you can tend.
People dont quite realize if you have a good-size garden, how prolific plants can be when they start to fruit, says McIntyre. People will plant eight squash plants for a family of four and they rot on the vine. You could have done two or three and culled one out. Pull it out if its taking nutrients from something else.
The outdoor work of gardening, though, can be a relief when youre inside a windowless kitchen all day. Its just over 3 miles from Trey Wilsons house to his restaurant, so he can go back and forth several times garden in the morning, run in to make fresh pasta, go home to garden, go back for service.
Chefs who really want to do it can find a way, he says.
It drives me bonkers, guys who say theyre farm-to-table and theyre not.
As for cutting the food bill with what the restaurant grows well, thats a nice thought. By the time you figure in labor, space and water, restaurant gardens dont save money. But the value goes beyond the harvest, says Jeremy Law.
I love that I can go out 20 feet from the kitchen and pick things were going to be serving in a few hours. Its smugness I dont have to ask anyone for these things.
You cant grow absolutely everything, but we grow everything we can.
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