Growing your own produce: passing fad or future of the industry?

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th November 2013
It’s taken a while to catch on since Raymond Blanc first set up his famous gardens at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in the early eighties, but now everyone seems to be doing it. As ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ become increasingly used (some would say overused) watchwords of the industry, more and more restaurants are growing their own produce. But is the phenomenon just a flash in the pan, a spin-off of the ‘locavore’ culinary trend, or is there something more serious and long-lasting behind it? The Staff Canteen decided to find out…   Buying the farm: what Simon Rogan did At the forefront of everything local, seasonal and home-grown in the UK is two-Michelin-starred chef, Simon Rogan. With his 12-acre Lake District farm just down the road from his flagship restaurant, L’Enclume in Cartmel, Simon has a sustainable growing operation for a whole fleet of restaurants which is the envy of many. Growing his own was something Simon fell into at first when the local organic farm that supplied L’Enclume started to deteriorate. He quickly took the decision to take over the running of the farm and bring it back to its former glory. From there the project grew until the decision came to buy his own. “We couldn’t make the decisions we wanted to in the original,” says Simon. “It was holding us back.” And so the farm in Cartmel was born. But it wasn’t just a business move for Simon. It was, like most things he does, centred around the ingredient. As he says: “A lot of the idea of growing our own stuff came from our frustration with trying to buy the perfect radish. And the other thing that was happening at the time was our decision to shun all foreign ingredients. We thought the best way to do that was being in control of our own growing operation.” Now the farm is central to the whole business and supplies the bulk of fresh produce to all Rogan restaurants around the country as well as accommodating future projects, like the new Claridge’s opening next year. “I’m pretty confident,” says Simon, “that even with the monster that Claridge’s is going to be, we’ll be able to supply most of the stuff.”   Growing your own in the Big Smoke: rooftops and community gardens Of course not everyone has the luxury of a 12-acre organic farm just down the road, especially if you’re in the city. In central London space is at a premium but this hasn’t stopped city-bound chefs from seeking new and innovative ways to grow their own produce. Tom Aikens has been a keen gardener since his childhood in Norfolk so it is perhaps no surprise that his restaurant in Chelsea is one of the first in London to sport a roof garden.  With several hundred plants growing on the roof, there is enough fresh produce to provide most of the restaurant’s needs. The benefits as a chef and a business owner are all about, control, cost-cutting, quality and of course freshness. As Tom says: “The great thing is you can pick from it when you need it and you can pick things just as they’re perfectly ripe.” Other benefits are more surprising; because the garden is so high there are very few pests, just a tiny amount of black fly and green fly which Tom deals with organically with soapy water,  also because of the limited space, there is very little chance for weeds to get hold. The greatest challenge, according to Tom, is space and the effort of running up and down stairs to the roof every day. The first, he deals with by re-seeding beds as soon as one crop is out of season and the second with a Heath Robinson-style pulley system using a ladder and rope. Roof gardens aren’t possible for everyone but there is more than one way to skin a carrot. Other inner city restaurants are looking to the local community to provide their fresh produce. One such enterprise is Angelus Restaurant and Lounge, a French restaurant with British ingredients situated near Hyde Park and run by former Chairman Sommelier of Britain, Thierry Tomasin. Angelus has gone into partnership with local charity, Meanwhile Gardens, a community garden just a couple of miles down the road in Kensington. Angelus buys fresh produce from Meanwhile’s rooftop or ‘Sky Garden’ including nasturtiums, mustard cress, ruby chard and even kiwi fruit grown on the garden’s very own kiwi vine. For Thierry the collaboration is not just about getting fresh local produce but sending out a message to other restaurants. “If all of us restaurants help people like them,” says Thierry, “more people will start growing vegetables and we’ll be using more British produce.”   The future is vertical Where there’s a will there’s a way and chefs are nothing if not resourceful. If soil is impossible to get hold of then why not grow your plants without the soil? The new technique of aquaponics or vertical growing is already in use in several restaurants and hotels in the US. The most common form of this currently in use is the tower system where plants are bedded into holes in the side of plastic, cylindrical growing stands, or 'towers'. Nutrient-enriched water is pumped to the top of the tower and sprinkles down the central cavity where it flows over and nourishes the exposed roots of the plants, providing a completely soil-less environment. One enterprise that has used this system to great effect is inner city New York restaurant, Bell Book and Candle, which has around 60 ‘Vertical Aeroponic Towers’ manufactured by Future Growing LLC.  The aquaponic towers stand on the roof of the West Village restaurant, producing hundreds  of fresh ingredients a year, from heirloom tomatoes to strawberries to melons to exotic red okra. Another business using the system is Chicago’s O’Hare Airport which has its very own ‘vertical farm’ using 26 of Future Growing’s  vertical towers to grow over 1,000 separate plants which supply many of the airport’s restaurants and eateries. Aquaponics may soon be making its way to UK restaurants with last year’s MasterChef: The Professionals winner, Keri Moss, hoping to use the system to supply fresh fruit and veg to her new venture, The Patch pub in East Dulwich, which opens in December. According to Keri the pub will be supplied by at least 20 vertical growing towers on the roof of the building, supplemented by conventional earth beds. Keri and her business partners hope to provide around 40% of their fresh fruit and veg from the towers with the rest coming from local allotments, farms within a 75 mile radius and Keri’s own home garden. Keri said: “To get anything naturally growing here you have to pay quite a lot of money and go quite a long way, and to get an allotment is really hard with a really long waiting list so it just made sense, once we had the right property, to do it.”     Green fingers and green walls: a sustainable solution? Perhaps the most innovative solution to growing your own produce in an inner city environment should go to El Piano, a tapas-style restaurant in York serving vegan and gluten-free food. A few years ago the family team, who run a small chain of El Piano restaurants including one in Malaga and one in Granada, came up with the idea of growing their fresh produce on the outside wall of the restaurant’s pre-16th century façade. The revolutionary system involves growing a mix of edible and ornamental plants across the face of the building, harvested using a simple ladder and harnessing system which the team designed themselves. Not only does it provide fresh produce all year round, it also acts as a second skin for the medieval building, protecting it from erosion and cutting down energy bills by raising the mean temperature by five degrees. The project ran into some trouble this year when they discovered the façade was leaning slightly into the street, making it unfeasible to hang produce from the bricks and mortar. However, as with so many setbacks, this has led to a ground-breaking solution. In conjunction with top architectural and engineering teams they have come up with a modular framework which will house the plants and fit against the surface of the building. According to El Piano founder and director, Magdalena Chavez, the structure should be up and running by next summer. More importantly the new structure can act as a blueprint which other eateries and buildings can follow. “We’re going to bundle this project up and let anyone else have it,” says Magdalena. “We’re not going to be precious about it. If we can pull this off in a conservation area on a medieval building in the North of England which is east facing, then we’ve got something which is going to be really useful to everyone.”   Fad or future? So is growing your own just another fad like powders, popping candy and sea purslane? Emphatically not, according to Simon Rogan. Increasing food shortages, a growing world population, rising demands on natural resources, spiralling environmental and climate problems, the economic downturn and overuse of chemicals in food; all of these are issues that aren’t going away soon, and make home growing a solution which needs to become a permanent fixture of the hospitality industry. As he says: “The only way to cure the world’s food shortages is for more restaurants to get out and do something like this.”   Doing it yourself: advice from the experts So what can you do if you’re a chef looking to grow your own produce, perhaps in a challenging environment like an inner city? Simon Rogan: “If you’re in London, secure some land just outside the city; invest in a small ecological van and bring it into the centre. Extend your gardening onto the roof; put some polytunnels up there; it’s easily done. Everyone should seek some sort of growing facility out. For me it’s one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done in my career.” Tom Aikens: “Don’t be afraid of trying and don’t be put off if it doesn’t work; just keep going. You can try lots of different varieties of things that you wouldn’t necessarily get from a supplier.” Keri Moss: “If you’ve got the means to do it, just do it. Even if it’s just a window box, that’s a start. Do some research and approach your local allotments and see if they’d like to go into partnership. It’s so much better and keeps your costs down as well.” Jo Howley, head chef at Angelus: “Get involved with your local community. Even if it’s a guy with a local allotment who’s got some extra carrots and runner beans that he can’t get rid of; you don’t have to have an account with someone to buy vegetables off them. It’s all about community.” Magdalena Chavez: “Projects like ours only work if the business community, the education community and the ordinary people get on board. It’s the future for all of us – collaboration and working together across community and education; it’s our only chance.”
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th November 2013

Growing your own produce: passing fad or future of the industry?