Bringing the Garden to the Bar
At this year's Tales, one of the tasting rooms featured a table literally overflowing with Technicolor produce: from mounds of blushing heirloom tomatoes to bouquets of flowering basil to heart-shaped cucumbers, absolutely everything was edible (and oh-so-Instagrammable). After a few days of imbibing hard liquor and eating heavy New Orleans food, the herbs and miniature-sized vegetables were both refreshing and delicious.
The man behind the table with an encyclopaedic knowledge of every plant was Jamie Simpson, the Executive Chef Liaison at The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio. Simpson's goal is to encourage more bartenders to think outside the proverbial herb box: "We're out of Prohibition and it's time to look at other ingredients. They don't have to be so shelf stable."
It's a new endeavor for The Chef's Garden, which has been providing specialty produce to some of the top chefs in the world for many years. The garden itself has quite the history. Owned by the Jones family for decades, they were originally a conventional farm, selling soybean, corn, and cabbages. With high interest rates and a near-catastrophic hail storm in the 1980s, though, the Jones family lost everything, including their farm, equipment, their home, and years of growing history.
Thanks to a neighbor's kindness, they began growing again on a small parcel of land nearby and selling at local farmer's markets. But it wasn't until a chef stopped by asking for squash blossoms that things began to change. (Remember, this was around 1989, right on the cusp of the food revolution, and squash blossoms were pretty out there for everyday folks.)
The story goes that the family took a vote around the table to either focus on farmers' markets or focus on providing fine-dining chefs with niche produce they weren't able to find elsewhere. According to Simpson (and farm lore), Farmer Mr. Bob Jones stated his vote counted for two and that "we're going to go out and find more chefs and figure out what we want to grow."
Nearly thirty years later, The Chef's Garden employs almost 200 employees on 300 acres of land, growing 700+ types of vegetables for more than 800 restaurants. "It's a cool, international, cosmopolitan place out in the middle of nowhere," remarks Simpson. Some of the earliest advocates read like a James Beard nominee list: Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Alain Ducasse were all early advocates (Keller and Ducasse currently sit on the farm's advisory board).
The farm is so committed to research and development that they've opened up The Culinary Vegetable Institute, which Simpson likens to "the Area 51 of cooking." Here you'll find visiting chefs doing all sorts of R&D, from menu development to recipe testing to exploring new technology. The Jones family believes by taking chefs out of the restaurant and into the pastoral setting of their farm, new ideas and inspiration will, well, blossom.
Simpson notes that before brand ambassador Charlotte Voisey did a Tales seminar on mint, she came to the farm for a visit and was amazed to learn they had more than 20 varieties for her to choose from. Today, bars like Employees Only, Broken Shaker, and even Disney Orlando have signed on to carry The Chef's Garden enormous variety of herbs, vegetables, and unusual garnishes.
If you're not able to make the trip to Ohio in person, no worries. The Chef's Garden has a team of product specialists able to describe in exacting detail everything they offer — what it looks like, what it tastes like, and what it would pair well with. Simpson says, "We're not pushing for vegetables in cocktails, but rather showcasing the baseline aromatic ingredients that are already in most of the spirits that we're pouring."