“Everyone talks about farm to table, but we’ve got a farm and we’re taking it to your table.”
That’s how Leather Storrs, Chef and Co-Owner of Noble Rot Wine Bar in Portland, describes the role of the rooftop garden that supplies ingredients to his restaurant. Although the garden is obviously functional, it also shapes the ethos of the restaurant and engages the community it serves.
We talked to the teams at three restaurants across the U.S. — Noble Rot; Gracie’s in Providence, Rhode Island; and The Grove in Houston, Texas — to learn how they’ve made rooftop gardens a successful part of their restaurant operations. Here are nine tips to keep in mind.
1. Feature roof-grown items on your tasting menu.
Chances are, a rooftop garden won’t yield nearly enough produce to provide ingredients for a whole restaurant. That means everything grown on the roof is an accent to the regular menu, not the main event.
At Gracie’s, home-grown products are mostly reserved for the tasting menu. Susan Bennett, Director of Operations at The Grove, says her team introduces different vegetables into standard dishes on their menu, based on what they have in the garden on a given day. Their menu also features a Vegetable of the Day to showcase ingredients from the roof.
“If we were going to grow only the lettuce for our butter lettuce salad, then our entire roof would have to be planted to butter lettuce to keep up,” says Leather. Like Susan, he allows items on the rooftop to drive the menu, such as the Rooftop Salad. Chefs also go up daily to harvest edible flowers and other plants they can use to garnish dishes.
2. Find a great partner.
At Noble Rot, Leather works with gardener Marc Boucher-Colbert to plan and plant the garden and harvest ingredients. As a Masters student at Portland State University, Marc got to know Leather after Leather cooked for him at a few events. He was researching rooftop gardens for a project and convinced Leather to let him plant olive trees on the restaurant roof. The trees didn’t quite work out, but they decided to keep working together as a kitchen-garden team.
Susan works with a third-party company at The Grove called Edible Herbs Resources, which specializes in creating gardens designed specifically for chefs. They lend their expertise on what to grow and when, and they stop by weekly to check in on the plants.
At Gracie’s, Chef Matthew Varga is in charge of tending the garden. Originally, Ellen says they had someone dedicated on staff to take care of it, but ultimately the labor was too expensive to make the project feasible. By folding the garden into the kitchen responsibilities, they not only save money on the operations but also encourage better flow between the garden and the kitchen.
She says the chefs welcome the added responsibility: “They love to have an hour a day to get out of the kitchen, get fresh air and be a part of the garden and see things grow. They will even come in on their days off just to go up there.”
3. Give chefs ownership of the garden.
Whether chefs are solely in charge of maintaining the garden or not, they should be actively contributing to its success. At every restaurant we talked to, chefs work with the gardeners to decide what they want to plant, based on what they want to feature on the menu.
Chefs at The Grove harvest from the garden daily; at Noble Rot, it’s multiple times a day. Often, Leather will bring down ingredients that need to be used immediately and set them conspicuously on the kitchen counters. It’s a cue for the kitchen crew to get creative and to learn about the fruits, vegetables and herbs they cook with.
“That is for me the greatest thing about our garden,” Leather says. “Most cooks don’t understand how plants grow. They don’t understand the time they take; they don’t understand if you’re using a stalk or a fruit or a flower.
“Getting my team to start to internalize that not only makes them better cooks but makes them more careful with all the vegetables we prepare, not just the ones we grow. They know full well that if they mess up something that we’ve grown on the roof I will not be happy. The quality of all of our food has been raised up by the virtue of the attention that we give to our own produce.”
4. Grow the best plants for the space.
Beds have to be more shallow on a rooftop garden that in a traditional one, which limits the kinds of plants you can grow. It takes a bit of experimenting to learn what thrives on a roof and what chefs can utilize best in a restaurant. Plus, most rooftops are smaller in square footage than traditional gardens, so there’s less room to work with overall.
Ellen says edible flowers have been successful at Gracie’s, but she’d never be able to have pumpkins, corn, or other large plants. Her team also grows herbs, radishes, broccoli and tomatoes. At The Grove, it’s squash in the summer and root vegetables in the fall and winter, while lettuces and herbs thrive throughout the year. The same goes for Noble Rot, although Marc says he’s never been able to grow tomatoes successfully — the bed is just too shallow and the plants require so much water that the resulting fruits taste too watery.
5. Plant ingredients that are expensive to buy.
Another bonus of growing edible flowers? They’re incredibly expensive to buy from farms. So are tomatoes (if you can make them work) and black dinosaur kale, which the team grows at Noble Rot.
“It’s ridiculously expensive, and that stuff grows like a palm tree,” says Leather. “If we have 10 planted we can usually support what we need to do — that’s a big savings for us.”
6. Make the garden unique.
Growing your own food for a restaurant provides the unique opportunity to grow exactly what you want. Especially when you’re growing small quantities — that’s all the more reason to focus on ingredients that will set your menu apart.
Peppers grow well in Houston, so the team at The Grove decided to try growing the hard-to-find chile pequin, the original chile pepper. “That’s been their challenge recently, to see what is out there to grow that we would be the only ones using,” says Susan. “Because then you’ve really got something special.”
At Noble Rot, Leather and Marc’s approach is 90% kitchen- and menu-driven and 10% novelty. Marc loves planting new, oddball edible plants like turmeric and recently, buckhorn plantain.
Leather explains: “It was completely unique, that was one of the special things about it. It is truly novel, and to be able to say that in Portland — where there’s a great deal of competition and copying and access to the same sources of material — that’s really an asset and a wonderful tool.”
7. Plan ahead.
Planning out what you’re planting and when is key to a garden’s success. Susan’s team meets with Edible Earth Resources on a quarterly basis to talk about what they want to grow. Being thoughtful about how they plant allows them to integrate the ingredients easily into the menu and use every bit of the yield.
The Noble Rot team has a less formal process. Marc says he and Leather can talk through a month’s worth of planting in five minutes, covering what’s working, what’s not, and what they might want to try. He pores through seed catalogs for ideas. They stagger the planting so that crops don’t emerge all at once and the chefs can move seamless through each yield. That way there’s variety on the menu and nothing goes to waste.
8. Give yourself plenty of (good, sturdy) space.
We asked all of the restaurants what, if anything, they would do different with their gardens given the opportunity. Rooftops are ideal for growing because you don’t have to deal with any rodents or pesticides, but almost all of them wish for more space to bring even more home-grown ingredients to the menu.
On a structural level, it’s also critical to make sure your building is engineered well and your roof can stand up to heavy soil. “The first step is, get a structural engineer and make sure you have capacity,” says Marc. “No matter how sexy it seems. if you put a dent in the roof or cause a collapse from foot traffic… it’s not going to seem so sexy after that. There’s a technical side of it that’s invisible to most people when they go up there, but that’s way more important actually than what you see.”
9. Use the garden to engage guests.
A rooftop garden can be a huge draw for restaurant guests who want to see where their food is coming from. At Gracie’s, Ellen holds events such as cocktail parties and even wedding ceremonies in the rooftop garden — events her team can pull off without a cooking element on site. The aesthetics of the garden make an ideal backdrop for celebrations.
The access to the Noble Rot garden is via a steep metal ladder, which doesn’t make it easy to get up and down. Still, they happily take guests up for tours when they ask to see the space.
“I think it adds to their pleasure at the table,” says Marc. “They’re amazed, they’re engaged, they absolutely love it. All the things on the menu that come from the roof are in capital letters, so that’s an interesting way to connect with it.”
Photo Credit: Jason Wessel