Last weekend I had the pleasure of traveling to The Culinary Vegetable Institute and The Chef’s Garden in Milan, Ohio (pronounced MY-LAN) with Chef Dave Martin (of Bravo’s Top Chef: Season One). I boarded the plane not knowing what the next three days would bring.
The Chef’s Garden is one of the leading growers of artisanal produce in the United States fusing together traditional farming methods of generations past with innovative product development. Family owned and operated by the Jones Family (specifically Bob Jones Sr., Lee, and Bob Jones Jr.), The Chef’s Garden supplies products to restaurants and food establishments all around the world. Do the names Charlie Trotter, Ferran Adria, Andrew Carmellini, Daniel Boulud, and Jonathan Sawyer ring a bell? Name a Chef and they have probably been to the farm; it’s revered within the industry as one of the best and I was honored to be among one of its visitors.
*The Culinary Vegetable Institute*
Dave and I met up with Farmer Lee Thursday night for dinner and a quick tour of neighboring Huron on the banks of Lake Eerie. The roots of the Jones family in this community are very obvious; they have been here for generations. It doesn’t hurt that Farmer Lee is unmistakable in his everyday uniform of dark blue overalls, a crisp white shirt and red bow tie.
*Farmer Lee and I*
I was eager to get out on the farm and check out the facilities but with an 80 person dinner looming over our heads, we had exactly one hour to check out the farm and its operations before heading back to the kitchen to prep. Farmer Lee kept saying he wished he could have taken us on a longer tour but anything was better than nothing. Their operation is absolutely amazing, I found myself constantly picking up my jaw seeing just a fraction of the over 600 varieties of specialty and heirloom vegetables, herbs, micro greens and edible flowers they have on site. From chef to mixologist, there is something for everyone.
We entered giant greenhouses, drove through fields as far as the eye could see, met with the sales and marketing team, dug our hands into the soil they were producing, watched seedlings drop into plant beds, and watched team members package tomatoes in every color imaginable. Every gasp, every exhalation was proof that this place was blowing my mind; I became impassioned with every step, implanting the commitment I have to eating only naturally raised animals to consuming pesticide-free produce.
*the most beautiful soil I have ever seen/touched in my life…can they ship it to nyc for use in my patio garden!?*
One thing you notice at The Chef’s Garden is that they are walking the talk… living and breathing the idea of sustainability wholeheartedly; whether it be by using retrofitted trailer cabs as offices, taking corn cobs from a neighboring farm and turning it into fuel, or furthering the idea of building a windmill for even more energy efficiency on the farm.
You also notice their commitment to food safety and quality; It is unparalleled to anything I have ever seen. Their attention to detail in every little aspect of the farm is admirable, who else puts this much care into every little seedling? Their packaging is even customized for every single item they produce; I imagined myself opening up a box from them and experiencing the same feeling of excitement and anticipation that I did as a kid on Christmas morning.
But we had to get back to the kitchen and begin preparing the food for the BBQ Bonanza. It had been two years since I last stepped into a professional kitchen but Michael and Kathryn (chefs at the Institute) helped Dave and I navigate through their glorious kitchen and helped us prep. It was as if I was in a time vortex, before I knew it seven hours had passed and we were ready to power down for the night.
*my “office” for two days!*
On the big day we were so prepared that we were scared we had forgotten something. Not surprisingly, the event went off without a hitch. I don’t think I saw any plate that had not been licked completely clean. My return to the kitchen had been successful and it was all due to the fantastic help we had from the CVI and friends of Dave in the kitchen.
I can never repay Farmer Lee and his wife Mary back for their hospitality; both were so thoughtful and generous. When Mary heard I was training for a marathon she took me on a run and Farmer Lee made sure to show us what Ohio had to offer through his personal tours, dinners, and required Pied Piper visit for soft serve ice cream.
This post doesn’t even scratch the surface over what I experienced last weekend; it would take a book for me to go into full detail. In a post this week on Gilt Taste Ruth Reichl summed up the farm best. And let’s face it….my words cannot hold a candle to her eloquence in describing The Chef’s Garden. Make sure to check out her article here.
My time at The Chef’s Garden was magical, inspiring, the sort of experience that makes me think more closely about my relationship with food. A huge thank you to Farmer Lee, Mary, Melissa, Kathryn, Michael, and the many others who helped to make my first trip (there will be more) to Milan, Ohio an unforgettable one. As I sit here writing this and look out to the concrete city that I call my home… my heart aches for a return to Milan, soon McKenzie soon.