Local chefs build menus around items harvested from their own gardens

Usually when chefs want radicchio or raspberries, artichokes or apples, kale or corn, they pick up the phone and call their produce purveyor. But a few simply go out to their garden and pick what they want. These chefs are spending their off hours tilling the soil in fields, on farms, or in their own backyards, and the results of their agricultural dalliances are enhancing restaurant menus all over town.

Their motives vary: A garden can add romance to the business of owning a restaurant, or ignite a cook's creative energy; some find it a welcome respite from routine, a chance to relax. The thrill of bearing the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor back to their restaurant kitchen is certainly part of their reward, but ultimately it's all about access: having supremely fresh, perfectly ripe, sometimes unique ingredients at hand is every good cook's passion.

Chef Kaspar Donier spends most of his days off with his wife, Nancy, and their two young daughters at Springhill Farm, their 10-acre retreat near Sumas, Whatcom County, where Donier diligently cultivates about three-quarters of an acre, growing an array of organic vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. "I spend a lot of time in the garden. Nancy thinks I'm crazy. But I'm quite happy weeding and planting and it's so rewarding to watch the seedlings grow. It's just me and the plants and I like the balance after dealing with people all week. No one talks back to you in the garden."

After five years, "it's still an experiment for me," admits the ruddy-cheeked, Swiss-born proprietor of Kaspar's Restaurant on Queen Anne. "I started with herbs. Now I grow a forest of chives that we freeze and use all year round in the restaurant. We also make our own herbal tea, with lemon balm, lemon verbena, rose petals and mint. I have so many kinds of mint; I once thought you can't have enough mint, but you can."

When the family makes the weekly trek back to Seattle, they haul coolers full of the garden's bounty for the restaurant. Farm-fresh tayberries, kohlrabi, zucchini and snow peas are all on the menu this month at Kaspar's.

"We freeze or can a lot of things, too," notes Donier. "We pickle vegetables and make jams and put up lots of mint jelly, which we like to use with lamb."

Planting a garden was a priority for Bruce Naftaly when he transformed a little house in Ballard into Le Gourmand Restaurant 19 years ago.

"Having a kitchen garden was part of the whole romance of owning a restaurant," says Naftaly, who also has a garden at his home, just a few blocks away. Then as now, "flavor is the motivation, but back then there weren't as many farmers markets as there are now so it helped to grow things myself."

Naftaly concentrates on growing things that tend to take care of themselves, which means few vegetables. Shiso, laurel and other herbs, berries, apples and roses, whose petals infuse a favorite sauce for salmon, flourish under Naftaly's green thumb. "Over the years I've got it down and learned to grow the things that are happiest here,"

His most versatile crop is probably the small black seedless Glenora grape. "Nothing goes to waste. I use the unripe grapes for verjus; the ripe ones for sauces and desserts; the leaves wrap things; the wood flavors the grill; and the vines shade the restaurant's windows in the summer, which helps keep it cool."

An unexpected obstacle

A tour of Café Juanita's garden begins in the dining room, where lacy, homegrown fennel stalks rise from a tall vase by the hearth and a just-picked spray of fiery orange and red Crocosmia Lucifer brighten a corner banquette.

Three years ago, when chef Holly Smith assumed ownership of the suburban-rambler-turned-restaurant set in a semi-residential Kirkland neighborhood, establishing a garden in the back yard that borders Juanita Creek was so important to her vision of the restaurant that she earmarked one-third of her budget for it.

"In retrospect, it was probably a crazy thing to do right away," she says now, strolling contentedly through the fragrant, herb-filled beds. "We only had two weeks to make the transition and we had a lot do inside as well."

Nevertheless, truckloads of soil arrived, and with the help of Andrew Stout of Full Circle Farm, an organic grower in Carnation who supplies produce to many local restaurants, they planted herbs, flowers, greens, and berries, and marked out a path that would allow customers to stroll from the restaurant's ground-floor patio into the garden.

Then a month later, the city planners caught up with them.

"It never occurred to me we needed permission to plant a garden," Smith says. Though condos and palatial creek-side residences surround the restaurant, many built right up to the edge of the creek, her organic garden was considered hazardous to the health of the stream. "They said we had infringed on the creek's buffer zone and told us we'd have to rip everything out."

Smith argued her case and in the end was allowed to keep her garden with modifications, among them giving up the path leading from the patio, which the planners feared would bring foot traffic too close to the creek's banks.

Cherry tomatoes, yarrow and Russian sage, along with anything else that requires full sun, make a colorful border along the front of the restaurant. "We think of this as our Mediterranean garden," Smith says. In the shadier back yard espaliered apple trees edge a winding plot of edibles framed by grasses and other perennials. Although a professional landscaper helps with the upkeep, Smith says the "gardener extraordinaire" is sous chef Earl Hook. "He's really the one with the vision."

Asked if the garden has had a positive impact on the bottom line, Smith shrugs. "Over the long haul it probably helps. We compost everything now, which has reduced our garbage by about 4-5 gallons a day. We grow all the herbs that we use most frequently — thyme, sage, rosemary, marjoram — and herbs are expensive to buy and have a high potential for waste. We even harvest and dry our own fennel pollen, which is a very pricey ingredient.

"But I have a bad habit of not looking at the bottom line, which is why I like being an owner," she confesses with a grin. "I just think it's nice to cut fresh flowers for the dining room, or to be able to pull something from the garden that enhances a dish in just the right way. Sometimes I'll make a broth and think a little kale would give it just the nuance it needs. I can go out back and pick it. And one of our frequent customers recovering from a serious illness always likes a salad. It's great that we can gather his lettuce five minutes before he walks through the door."

Home-grown ingredients

Chefs who don't happen to own the store — or a farm — are growing food in their own back yards. After five years of apartment living on Capitol Hill, Charlie Durham, top toque at Cassis Bistro, was elated to move into a house with a big, sunny, south-facing yard. This year he planted his first garden. Thyme, basil, radishes, squash and 12 kinds of tomatoes are thriving; all destined for the kitchen at Cassis.

There are seven permanent garden beds at the Lake Forest Park home of Earth & Ocean executive chef Johnathan Sundstrom and his wife; one for every year they've lived there. "I'm cultivating Alpine strawberries in about eight different places in the yard, our cherry tree should kick in soon, and in the next year or two we hope to harvest table grapes," says Sundstrom. Surplus herbs often end up at Earth & Ocean, as did the leaves from a recent pruning of the grape vines. "We blanched, brined and jarred them. They make a great wrap for grilled halibut."

When Brian Scheehser, executive chef at the Sorrento Hotel's Hunt Club, ran out of growing room in his Ballard yard, he rented a couple of acres in Woodinville and began farming in earnest. "The Herbfarm's gardens are right next to mine, so I get to see what a true master has made," says Scheehser, who admits gardening has become "sort of an insaneness."

Because everything he's growing, from corn to purple cauliflower, is potential raw material for the Hunt Club, the garden has created a whole different thought process among the cooks at the hotel, says Scheehser. "It's made us stop being robots. Now, instead of picking up the phone and calling in an order to the produce supplier, they call me and ask what's ready."

Supporting local farmers

Not every chef has the time or inclination to grow their own food, and certainly none can grow everything they need year-round. Charlie Durham, like many area chefs, cultivates direct relationships with local small farmers. Merv Dykstra, a Yakima Valley farmer, supplies Cassis and other Seattle-area restaurants with enough fresh produce to make his weekly trips over the mountains worth it.

Durham also deals with a farmer in Bellingham who specializes in herbs. "I use their angelica in the crème caramel and hyssop to make ice cream." Ten pounds of elderberries that arrived from them this summer quickly became jelly. "It should be perfect in the fall with foie gras," Durham says.

The "Grower's Menu" is a year-round feature at Earth & Ocean in the W Hotel. The three-course, $25 vegetarian meal showcases products from a regional small farm like Full Circle or Quillisascut. "I'd like it if there were a dozen more calling me up," says Sundstrom, who scouts farmers markets for contacts.

The closest Chris Keff comes to gardening is a few containers on her deck in West Seattle, but the chef/owner of Flying Fish and Fandango began seriously pondering ways of supporting local farmers after a conference last year of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs in Eugene, Ore. When the group went on a shopping foray to the farmers market there, the quality and variety inspired Keff to rethink how she buys produce for her restaurants. She came away determined to access more things from "our Northwest garden."

"I looked at what it costs us to buy vegetables for Flying Fish. We spend about $100,000 a year. I realized that I had a lot of buying power. I thought, let's put it to work in a way that can make a difference." She set out to form a partnership between a local farm and Flying Fish, whereby the restaurant would guarantee the farmer a certain amount of money in return for whatever they can grow.

Mike and Shelley Verdi, owners of Whistling Train Farm in Kent, liked the idea, and a deal was concluded in March — too late for the restaurant to participate in planning what the farm would grow this year, but plenty of time for Flying Fish to reap the benefits, now that it's high summer.

"It's a radical shift for the farmer and for us," acknowledges Keff. "Usually the farmer plants what they know will sell at farmers markets, but at the restaurant we can use anything they can grow. The partnership forces us at the restaurant to use what they have and make it work — this week it might be pea vines, next week fava beans. What's available determines what's on the menu.

"It's the same sort of thing we do with the fish," she continues. "Every morning the chef walks into the cooler and decides what the menu will be based on what's there, or what we know is coming in."

Supporting sustainable local agriculture is one of Keff's primary goals, but she also hopes the farm partnership "will stretch our creativity. I want to encourage the cooks to think seasonally and locally, to be more connected to what's fresh and available."

In other words, she wants to bring them down to earth.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com