Eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant means food that not only tastes amazing, but looks it too. Plates are decorated with tiny vegetables in colors you didn’t know existed in nature, boasting award-winning flavors that surprise the palate. It should come as no surprise that chefs don’t source this type of produce from the same grocery store you buy lettuce from, instead they get it straight from Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio.
Specializing in produce that is grown with impressive precisian and scientific care, Chef’s Garden supplies the best chefs in the world with the ingredients that help make their restaurants famous. The 300-acre farm grows around 800 different types of produce—from impossibly tiny cucamelons (yes, they’re real) to ice spinach—but it wasn’t always so specialized. Before the family-run farm connected with people like Jean-Louis Palladin, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud, they were actually in the commercial vegetable business. They only moved to the niche market out of pure desperation.
When Farmer Lee Jones (otherwise known as the guy in the red bowtie) was just 19-years-old, his family’s farm was sold out from under them. This was right after interest rates in the ‘70s and early ‘80s had hit 21 percent (today they’re about 3.5 percent) and a brutal hail storm wiped out all of their crops. “I stood … shoulder-to-shoulder with my [family], all of our neighbors and competitors—everybody who was there to relish in our failure—and they auctioned every single piece of equipment … that we owned,” Jones told us, adding that the sale even included their car and home. “We literally crawled away.”
The family was eventually able to buy back six acres that included a farmhouse for $56,000. Because they couldn’t purchase any more land due to lack of funds, there was no way they could compete in commercial production, which led them to their local farmers market. It was here where the family met a European-trained chef who was disappointed with the produce she was finding in American stores. Seeing something different in the type of vegetables the Jones family was offering, she began chatting with them about new growing methods that centered more on quality and less on quantity. She encouraged them to grow for flavor, to develop smaller vegetables that are more aesthetically pleasing and to stop using chemicals.
Meeting her resonated with Jones’ father, who saw a niche market that would put the family on a completely different level than their competitors. After some thought, he rounded up the family and put it to a vote: either stick with the farmers market, where they had developed a steady customer base, or do a complete overhaul and cater to fine chefs (which were only around two percent of their business at the time).
Though the whole family voted for the markets, Papa Jones overruled them all. “He took a clenched fist and he slammed it down onto the table … and he said, ‘Absolutely not! [This] is the direction we need to go and the direction this country needs to go. We’re abandoning the farmers markets,’” recalls Jones. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to get out there [and] talk to every chef you can find and you’re going to get an understanding of what they want and how they want us to grow it.’”
“As devastating as losing the farm was, it allowed us an opportunity to kind of rethink our purpose, the direction we needed to go [in].”
The first major chef they worked with was the James Beard award-winning Jean-Louis Palladin, who recognized the path they were on and lent his support. Soon, the family’s Chef’s Garden added Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, The Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons to their list of clients and mentors. Then their on-site Culinary Vegetable Institute was created to give these chefs (many of whom became part of the advisory board) a place to do research and development. “We have about 500 visiting chefs a year that come. Grant Achatz from Alinea restaurant—which at one point was the number one restaurant in the world—brought his entire … team before they opened and spent three days doing menu development.”
The world of vegetables is still fairly unexplored, meaning that there are countless types and varieties left to discover. Chef’s Garden specializes in these rare and unheard of varieties that they source from all over the world (even the Old World), looking for produce that is beautiful and unique. Sometimes chefs even bring in seeds from their home countries, asking the family to replicate something they ate as a child and thus driving the types of crops the family grows. “It’s the Chef’s Garden for a reason.”
“We have a rhubarb stock that came from the Old Country and was handed down to us from an 80-year-old man, and we’ve multiplied it out over the last 15 years.”
Taking great care in the growth process, Chef’s Garden works with only 300 acres and puts just 100 of them in production at a time—compared to large farms with up to 10,000 acres in use. While all farms rotate their crops and analyze the soil to see what nutrients it may be deficient in, the Jones family forgoes synthetic fertilizer and instead uses other plants to deliver the necessary nutrients. “For us, it’s about working in harmony with nature rather than trying to outsmart it.”
“Different types of plants will accept different types of energy from the sun. They pull it down through the leaf, into the stem, through the roots and into the soil. Then when we plant [something], it picks those natural nutrients back up, into the plant and then when we eat it, it builds our immune system.” For instance, if their soil is deficient in nitrogen, they might plants cowpeas or buckwheat.
Chef’s Garden takes a firm anti-manure stand, and it’s based on practicality and smart business. Though using manure is popular among small, organic gardens, Jones says that you won’t find many commercial farms using it anymore. Not only is there a limited supply, but it is much more difficult to regulate—and when your produce is being served in five-star restaurants, you need strict regulation. “Our food safety consultant would shut our farm down if we were using animal manure.”
“[The United States is] the most sterile environment in the world, but we’re also the most vulnerable. You never hear of an E.coli outbreak in Mexico, do you? They drink well water still, which has the bacteria in it to defend against the E.coli.” We have chlorine in our city water, which not only kills bad bacteria, but kills the good stuff too. Because of that, our immune systems don’t build up and those who are predisposed to illness will get sick easier. You may not get sick after eating food grown using manure (which carries E.coli and salmonella), but your 90-year-old grandfather with his compromised immune system might. “We’re working with some of the greatest restaurants and chefs in the world and … they’re depending on us [to have] their backs covered with not only great tasting food, really sexy food [and] consistent supply, but also the safest food that we could possibly provide.”
Every detail is taken into account, from the weight of a seed (they found a correlation between weight and quality) to the growing environment—seeds that need extra care are grown in a controlled area, much like a premature infant. Unlike commercial farms that harvest and truck out produce to a distributing warehouse where it sits until sold, Chef’s Garden won’t touch their crops until a chef asks for something. “We got an order last night from a chef, we picked it this morning and brought it in, washed it … and shipped it, and the chef can have it on a plate tomorrow night. Less than 24 hours from the harvest.”
Not just about farming, Chef’s Garden holds educational classes for food enthusiasts, hosts weddings and private team building outings. They even put together a nine-course dinner for Valentine’s Day that was open to the public. Farmer Lee Jones also throws the Roots Conference in the Culinary Vegetable Institute in September, which invites industry professionals (including famed chefs) to speak on a variety of issues related to food and health. If you want to delve into (and taste) the future of food, Roots is where you do it.
Chef’s Garden isn’t just available to culinary stars, as they also offer vegetable boxes ($75-$130) through Omaha Steaks. Once the farm’s website is revamped in May or June though, customers will be able to purchase goods straight through the farm.