A savvy restaurant goer in search of the best dining experiences knows to seek out restaurants with changing, seasonal menus, and chefs that are acclaimed for their focus on how and where they source their ingredients. Produce, in particular, should be fresh, flavorful, and as free as possible from the artifice of industrial scale production. Some years ago, the term “Hyper Local” entered the restaurant lexicon as a way of describing ingredients produced by, or at least in partnership with, the restaurants that would ultimately use them. More than just a snobby way of describing a chef’s backyard garden, the term was a blanket for several innovative growing methods that, since their conception, have become even more accessible to chefs today. So where do we stand with our herbs and microgreens?
The Backyard Garden
The age-old tradition for a chef who wanted the freshest possible ingredients, was to produce them himself, in a garden cultivated on some extra square footage at the restaurant, or in the chef’s own back yard. And there is still a lot to be said for this approach: it is affordable with very little barrier to entry for novices, and so long as you have the space, you can grow almost anything you set your mind to, so long as it’s regionally appropriate.
There, unfortunately, we do hit our first drawback to the traditional ways. Outdoor gardens are subject to seasonal and regional limitations, to the unkindness of weather, and to pests. Growing produce at a scale where it can be useful to a restaurant in these conditions does require the most dedication from a restauranteur; and what restauranteur has time to spare?
There is also the limitation of space. So many of our acclaimed restaurants are in urban areas where real estate prices only seem to climb and climb. Some creative chefs have found success with rooftop gardens, though if you rent your space be prepared for complex discussions with your landlord before starting one.
The Green Wall
One way to bring the garden inside and eliminate some of those risky variables is with a green wall. These have any number of names, including living walls, but the concept is basically the same: horizontal space is used to grow attractive plants, and integrate appealing, natural elements into your interior design.
These installations are usually large, eye catching, and very near to customer accessibility spaces like a bar, lobby, or dining room, to maximize appeal. Specialist designers work alongside owners to choose plans and layouts to suit your interior, and customized management programs keep things growing all year-round while simplifying maintenance.
When these green walls are used to grow edible plants such as herbs and microgreens, you do unfortunately run into some limitations with what vegetables can be grown, versus a traditional garden. Also, you do not want your entire wall to suddenly appear barren during a harvesting cycle, so customarily only about a third of the surface space on a wall is dedicated to edible applications, the remainder is usually decorative.
The Hydroponic Cabinet
A number of companies are now making enclosed cabinets that hydroponically grow produce like microgreens, herbs, and salad greens, using nutrient enhanced water and LED sun lights to optimize growth. Integrational with technology meant to monitor growth and notify you when plants are ready to be harvested take the guess work out of the process and make everything foolproof.
Although these cabinets can be given prominent display positions, they are usually not meant to be located in a dining room or directly near a customer like a green wall is. Like a green wall, they also have a limited range of produce that can be grown in such an environment, though they can produce a good variety of things and at a rate high enough to support your restaurant’s needs.
As a final precaution with this option, many manufacturers design their hydroponic cabinet to accept seed pods of their own design, compelling you to order refills from them when its time to start growing a new crop.
The Fruit of Your Labor
A word of caution for chefs considering these ideas – hyper local sourcing does not guarantee safety, nor does it excuse poor food handling. Though you may have lovingly grown those heirloom strawberries yourself, all produce should still be washed, dried, and stored in appropriate fashion. A sick employee might have been the one to harvest your baby spinach; a guest may have sneezed on your green wall.
As to which option works best for you – they are all constrained either by space, budget, or amount of time you have to dedicate towards them. Your food service designer can help you further discuss the pros and cons of each, and work with your architect to integrate these spaces into your restaurant. If you think you’d like to feature some home-grown greens on your menu, we can help you make it happen.
By: Kevin Banas, Project Manager | Chicago