Eat local. That’s the mantra of some of the county’s (and the country’s) top restaurants, where menus list farm names as readily as ingredients. But, while many restaurants are measuring “local” in miles, some chefs are defining it as being within a few steps of their own kitchens, by growing their own produce on-site. Of course, it’s not a new approach. For thousands of years, people have been cooking with the local ingredients that they could grow, domesticate, or forage (no, trendy Nordic chefs didn’t invent this) themselves. Whether it’s a few acres or a few square feet, chefs know that fresh food tastes better. It’s as simple as that.
At Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish, co-owner and Chef Michael Kaphan is growing more than just a small garden. The historic 1775-farmhouse restaurant is surrounded by three acres of terraced farmland growing everything from asparagus to watermelons to chili peppers. During the summer, 75 to 90 percent of the produce served in the restaurant (everything except onions, garlic, citrus, and potatoes for french fries) will come from what’s grown on-site. There’s a hydroponic greenhouse overflowing with herbs, lettuces, and small tomatoes; a 3,000-square-foot high tunnel with rows of vegetables waiting to be transplanted or harvested; plus six beehives, stone fruit trees, berries, and whatever can be foraged (nettles and dandelion greens, for example) from the area. Nothing is sprayed with pesticides or fungicides. “If something gets fungus, we kill it and throw it away,” says Kaphan. “If we have an aphid or white flies, we buy its predator.” Inside the restaurant, a long blackboard lists what’s on the menu “From Our Field & Greenhouses” tonight.
It’s a constantly evolving process. “Every year, we grow the best of, and then we try something new,” he adds. This year, they’re adding cherry peppers, which they’ll pickle in-house, to perennial favorites like jalapenos and hard-to-find piment d’espelette (a hot red pepper from France’s Basque region that’s often powdered). Instead of black beauties or fairytale eggplants, Kaphan says they’ll only grow the Thai variety because it’s what customers seem to love. And fingerling and Red New Orleans potatoes are a must for popular dishes like scallop salad and lobster bakes. While there will be a full crop of watermelons, the plan is to yield just a couple cantaloupes for the cocktail menu.
Kaphan and his team are also planning ahead for the off-season. The greenhouse and high tunnel extend the growing season into the spring and fall, and hearty greens like spinach might even last into early winter. They’ll also grow storage crops—kohlrabi, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips—that they can cellar for winter, extra cucumbers to pickle, more than 300 tomato plants just for canning, and those espelette peppers? They can be dried and powdered, to sprinkle over salmon throughout the year.
In Ossining, Roger Mason, chef and co-owner of Basta, might not have three acres of farmland, but he’s doing just fine with nearly 2,000 square feet of roof space. “When I was young, I used to garden with [my grandfather],” says Mason. “So the basis of farming has kind of been with me since I was young.” In 2012, when he opened Basta with fellow CIA grad Leah DiSisto, there were just a couple planters outside growing fresh herbs, but the following summer, a customer from Briarcliff offered up his 1930s greenhouse that was in need of repair. From there, the garden ballooned to include the roof space above Basta and the adjoining store, where Mason has more than 300 tomato plants that go into Caprese salad and sauces, basil to finish nearly all the pizzas, eggplant for pasta dishes, plus kale, carrots, and lettuces.
When the weather chills and nothing grows on the roof, Mason turns his focus to other seasonal pursuits, like canning last-of-the-season tomatoes from a local farm in Yorktown, picking apples at his grandfather’s orchard upstate and curing his own prosciutto and pancetta.
Just up the river, there’s something growing on the roof at The Blue Pig in Croton-on-Hudson. Owner Lisa Moir’s boyfriend built plant beds on the roof of her eco-friendly scoop shop five years ago to grow herbs for her seasonal ice creams. Peppermint is soaked in milk to create the base for The Blue Pig’s Garden Mint Chip, spearmint gives a kick to the mojito sorbet, and thyme adds earthiness to a bright lemon sorbet.
At Amore in Armonk, the garden yields a sizeable crop of vegetables, to fuel specials throughout the summer and herbs to freshen up the cocktail menu. In the fall, diners can snag a table outdoors and nibble on fresh grapes picked from a trellis made of reclaimed 150-year-old barn wood.
Further south, Dubrovnik brings a taste of Old World Croatia to New Rochelle, with an inner courtyard bursting with plants. Chef Antonio Selendic works in the garden and the kitchen, growing heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, arugula, and herbs, transforming them into simple, fresh dishes like the Dubrovnik salad with Croatian cheese shavings. In the summer, he makes homemade linguine with yellow heirloom tomato sauce and fresh basil. Some of the garden’s bounty also makes its way onto the wood-burning grill, where it’s simply dressed with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. “Dubrovnik is unique in our area as the only Croatian restaurant around,” says owner Zeljko Tomic. “It is authentic to what the restaurant would be if located in Croatia.”