the farm project
Starting the farm project was one of the most interesting collaborative experiences we’ve had yet. In 2010, we found an amazing plot of land and a family who believes in local produce and is committed to the effort. The Benziger family owns Imagery Estate Winery, a 20-acre property in Glen Ellen and a short drive from the restaurants. Wine grapes are planted on 7 acres and vegetables, herbs, and fruit orchards fill about 12 acres. In addition to the land at Imagery, we have a half-acre plot adjacent to the girl & the fig restaurant and several raised beds next to ESTATE, about 2 acres total.
The goals of the farm project are to see how farming our own produce will affect our business and in what ways—that’s why I call it a project. So far, the year has shown that it adds a lot of “feel-good” product diversity, major amounts of manpower, and a lot of aspirin for the back pain!
There is an amazing feeling watching food grow, a process that we often take for granted—from when a seedling is first placed in the earth right through the magnificent cycle that brings it to its full flavor and beauty. Working under “the biodynamic and organic” philosophies that the Benzigers are committed to adds another level of pride and satisfaction. In this scenario, we really know where our food comes from, how it has been farmed, what critters have visited, and when it was harvested. For John, the farm project is a natural extension of our philosophy at the restaurants, serving wonderful food that reflects a sense of place.
We were also committed to the idea of reducing waste, both in the kitchen and our own waste output. One of the hardest things to control in a restaurant kitchen is food wastage. We strive to train our employees not to take shortcuts in the prep kitchen. There are valuable scraps that can go into stock, soup, or other dishes. What is sometimes seen as waste is actually perfectly good product for another use.
We asked the sous chefs to help plant, weed, and harvest, giving them a true appreciation for product and hopefully reducing waste. Involving the prep and line cooks in the farm duties has given them a new perspective on how much effort it takes to farm and our wastage conversations are no longer ignored. We’ve also reduced waste through composting. The kitchen scraps go into the compost pile at the Imagery farm, which is then used to fertilize the crops and as mulch. Not only is composting better for the environment but it’s made a difference in our bottom line as well. When we started composting, we took a trash day away from our delivery, and we’ve saved a lot of money by reducing what we pay the trash company; John notes that we’ve cut our trash bill by 33 percent. By next year we will have our own compost and we won’t have to buy any.
On the Imagery farm the orchards are brimming with an amazing assortment of produce, often several varieties of one crop. For example, there are five types of peaches (Babcock, Elberta, O’Henry, Indian Free, and Frost), three types of apricots (Blenheim, Tilton, and Tom Cot), and three types of Pluots (Flavor Queen, Flavor King, and Dapple Dandy). We planted two types of cucumbers (Armenian and Lemon), three types of squash (zucchini, Green Tint patty pan, and a yellow variety), and five types of beans (Tricolor, Cold Rush, Bluelake, Haricots Verts, and Romano). Sometimes this bounty keeps us menu-planning well into the night. The variety of produce gives us so many wonderful options to work with, inspiring menu changes and new dishes. Each type is suited to a specific dish; some peaches are better for baking, while others are better for canning and preserving, for example. Rows of herbs flourish alongside the vegetables, both familiar (Italian parsley, chives, tarragon, rosemary, and thyme) and the more unusual (lemon verbena, Opal basil, nettles, and marjoram). All of the produce from the farm ends up on our menu while some of it is devoted to our Sonoma Valley Sharecropping project.
Through farming, which is the epitome of the seasonal experience, we’ve gained an even deeper appreciation of the word “seasonal”. “We’re experiencing microseasonality,” as John puts it. He remembers the summer of 2010 in particular, which had very unusual weather for Sonoma, staying cool for a month longer than usual, delaying the tomato crop. “At one point, we had tomatoes everywhere, because when the tomatoes ripened they all came in at once,” notes John. “So we had cases and cases of tomatoes. We made sun-dried tomatoes but we had to think, what else can we do with a tomato?” With the abundance of green and red tomatoes we were forced to get creative and John made cases of green tomato jam. “Normally we would have just bought San Marzano tomatoes and never made green tomato jam,” says John.“We’re forced to deal with the reality of the season, not the idea of the season. It made us plan our menus from a less macro to a more microseasonal perspective.”
Viewing farming from a macro perspective also means the seasons overlap a bit. Who would think you could have Delicata squash and cucumbers appearing on a menu at the same time, harvested from the same farm? You cook what the farm provides and you make adjustments and get creative. “the farm project sharpened our appreciation for seasonal,” says John. “You stop thinking fall versus summer but start to think of what is ripe. It has made us better produce buyers and better farmers.”
Eating seasonally is good for the planet and for your taste buds and it also makes financial sense for a restaurant. “It’s common sense to be seasonal. If we have to have tomatoes year-round and tomatoes taste better in summer, why not put them up when they are at their peak to be enjoyed in winter?” John explains. “You want to pay the least amount when they taste best. It’s common sense for the restaurant.”
Even with the amazing amount of food we’re growing (2,000 pounds in October 2010 alone), we’re not able to supply the restaurants with all that we need. September 2010 was our biggest harvest to date, yet only 8 percent of our total produce purchases were from the farm. That’s because we’re not professional farmers yet— as we learn, we’ll increase our yield and one day hopefully be able to grow all of our own food.
John oversees the farm project and has become a devoted farmer himself. When he’s not overseeing the kitchen or working with the staff, he’s reviewing crop plans, researching organic ways to eliminate pests (like the dreaded gopher), or harvesting crops. “I’m just fascinated by the entire process,” attests John. “I want to understand the kitchen side of it but as time has gone by I want to understand the entire circle, from growing it to cooking it.”
One way we’ve tried to bring the farm to the table—literally—is through themed farm dinners at ESTATE. Not only did the farm dinners help pay for the farm, but our customers got a chance to experience local and seasonal to the utmost degree. “It’s a way to tell a story about the farm through a dinner,” says John. The dinner begins with a conversation among the landowner-rancher, Chris Benziger; the head farmer, Colby; and the chef, John. Each describes his role in the farm and the inspiration that the others attribute to their own success.
Last year we had two wildly successful farm dinners, the first being a Small Plate Tomato inner, in which every course featured tomatoes using different cooking methods, and an Heirloom Apple Dinner that we collaborated on with Kendra and Paul from Nana Mae’s Organics, which highlighted at least ten of the apples from their orchards.
Many of our guests share our passion for the farm and some have participated in one way or another. We have had extra hands helping with harvest; I have been the recipient of gifts from their own farms (including the most amazing blood red peaches); and we have shared stories and conversation through our social media activities.
As with most of our projects, we’re always looking for ways to improve and explore new things. In 2010, most of our crops were transplants but we built a greenhouse so we can start certain crops from seed from local seed companies. Next year the goal is to pull our own seeds out. In farming there’s always something else to do, to tweak, to improve on, and we’re dedicated to making the farm project a long-term part of our restaurants.
excerpt from Plats du Jour;
the girl & the fig's Journey through the Seasons in Wine Country
photographs by Steven Krause