A Visit to the Legendary The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio
HURON, OHIO – Bob Jones, Jr., whose family owns and operates the legendary The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, turns to me from the front seat of his dust-encrusted truck.
“When we have visitors—especially writers like you—we worry about what they are going to think about our packing facility.”
It’s a frigid, windy day in mid January, and Jones is about to escort me and visiting chef Skyler Golden of the Driskill Grill in Austin, Texas, into a newish packing and shipping facility that just went live in November.
The comment inspires some anticipation, and also apprehension. I am there as a guest of the Joneses, who flew me out for a tour and put me up at the guest quarters of their nearby Culinary Vegetable Institute, a multipurpose venue with an open professional kitchen, library, adaptable event space, and more intimate dining room. (It also hosts special programs such as a coming benefit for the Bocuse d’Or USA this Saturday night, March 15.) There were no conditions on my reporting, nor was I asked to show the family or their team this piece before posting it. Still, the prospect of an unpleasant obligation loomed before me. I have enough complexes being a New Yorker in the heartland, the last thing I want to be considered is a backstabber.
I needn’t have worried, and neither did Bobby. The shipping facility, surprisingly, turns out to be my favorite part of the tour, and Skyler’s as well, and for the same reason: It was the least expected. In the winter, produce is harvested daily from a network of greenhouses, according to what’s been ordered on the day, funneled to this facility, and then boxed up by each department. The boxes are gathered on racks based on delivery method—truck, FedEx, and so on—each of which carries its own hard deadline. An average of about 175 orders of varying sizes ship out to destinations all over the world every day, with new orders flowing in right behind them by email, phone, and fax, and the orchestration of the groups that make it all happen is comparable, it seems to me, to that required to run, say, a small regional airport.
Indeed the thing that most impressed me about The Chef’s Garden during my whirlwind visit is the thing about which the Joneses are most self-conscious: The technology required to power their operation. Ironically, what most impresses me is the breathtaking devotion to cleanliness, safety, and quality, evidenced as much at this facility as it is in the greenhouses: feet are stomped in a sanitizing agent before one enters the facility, substandard specimens are tossed into gargantuan bins, greens are bathed in a sanitizing liquid then dried before being packed up, and each individual crop is assigned a bar code that allow any food safety issues to be tracked to the source (thankfully, The Chef’s Garden has never had to do that).
Great attention is also paid to the packing itself, as staff members fuss over the contents of each box like florists. Their coats bear badges that say WOW TEAM. Is it an anagram? “It’s a reminder of the reaction we want from the chefs when they open the box,” says Bob. “We want it to be like Christmas morning for them. We want them to say ‘Wow.’”
THE FIRST TIME BOB, JR’S BROTHER, LEE JONES, BROUGHT zucchini blossoms to an Ohio farmer’s market in 1983, he did it surreptitiously. He didn’t want his competitors to see him peddling such dainty little curiosities. His family, hit by a one-two punch of high interest rates and a hailstorm, had lost just about everything that year, and were rebuilding. They’d suffered enough humiliation at auction; they didn’t need to be seen selling “flowers” in an industry defined by conventional commercial crops such as cabbage, sweet corn, peppers, and eggplant.
But Lee had recently met a chef who had trained in Europe, and had been making the rounds at the farmer’s market, asking farmer after farmer if they could get her the same delicate blossoms she’d come to know and love in Italy. She’d been laughed away at every turn. Even the Joneses—Lee, his father Bob, and brother Bob, Jr—thought she was “crazy.” But Lee decided to give it a whirl.
The chef was overjoyed, and mentioned to another chef that she had met a farmer who was willing to entertain custom orders. The national network of chefs taken for granted today hadn’t coalesced just yet, but there were chefs out there, many of them, who had staged in Europe and were desperate for farmers who could produce ingredients of the caliber they’d become accustomed to overseas, as well as more and more specialty items that they sought out to add dynamism to their plates.
The Joneses began accommodating more and more special requests for items such as baby carrots, baby beets, breakfast radishes, even edible flowers, until they reached a crossroads. “The chefs were two percent of our business and eighty percent of our aggravation,” says Lee Jones today, repeating a story he’s told so often that it’s honed to a well-crafted monologue. The family decided they had to either jettison the toques or else shift their focus entirely to chefs. They went with the chefs and, in the late 1980s, Farmer Jones Farm became The Chef’s Garden, and before long some of the most influential chefs of the day—Charlie Trotter, Jean-Louis Palladin, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Thomas Keller—were customers. Framed snapshots of the Jones family with these and other luminaries, past and present, line the walls at key buildings at both the office and the Culinary Vegetable Institute.
When they made the commitment to grow a chef-based business, Jones, Sr. dispatched Lee around the country with a slide projector and a sales pitch. In time, Lee also developed the trademark outfit that makes him immediately recognizable at events: denim overalls, white shirt, and red bowtie. He says that he has a drawer full of red bowties and that, at this point, he never wears anything other than his signature ensemble. A few Christmases ago, his parents bought him a pair of khakis and he promptly exchanged it for a fresh set denim overalls.
The inspiration for the outfit, says Jones, came from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, specifically from a scene in which a group of displaced farmers threw themselves a soiree.
“They didn’t have anything, but they put on this dance and wore farmer clothes and they were clean and proud,” says Jones.
A VISIT TO THE CHEF’S GARDEN GOES LIKE THIS: At the Culinary Vegetable Institute, you are treated to a breakfast, in our case, it was a fancified take on steak and eggs prepared by two chefs in residence, the CVI’s Executive Chef Carl Swanbeck and its Culinary Liaison Jamie Simpson. (The night prior, the two also prepared a welcome dinner for me and Skyler in the home of Lee Jones and his wife, Mary, which is a stone’s through from the CVI. It happened to be Skyler’s birthday, which Jamie commemorated with a special dessert that doubled as a Toqueland nod.)
The next stop is a visit to the main office building, and a video presentation by Alexandra Scheufler, essentially the marketing and PR director although she goes by the title “Farm Crier and Farmer’s Assistant.” (Because my main interest is chefs, not farms, I requested to be there on a day a chef was visiting and essentially took a backseat to Skyler, observing his visit.)
The presentation breaks down The Chef’s Garden brands (their word): The Chef’s Garden, The Culinary Vegetable Institute (a place for visiting chefs “to play,” is how Scheuttler describes it), Farmer Jones Farm, and Veggie U, a not-for-profit educational program through which the Joneses send growing kits to elementary schools in 27 states. (The farm also offers a CSA-type box for home delivery.)
Skyler is then treated to a video presentation which includes an old Martha Stewart television segment that doubles as infomercial, in which the aspirational goddess visited the farm; it heralds, among other elements, the microclimate created by breezes from nearby Lake Erie. Then Alex reappears and explains how the farm keeps touch with its chef customers, letting them know what looks good at any given time and talking up new crops the chefs might be interested in based on culinary style and prior orders. The Chef’s Garden also mails out a seasonal menu planning guide, and a larger, annual category guide that highlights new developments such as an increased focus on edible flowers. In this age when the lines between sweet and savory, cuisine and chemistry are ever more blurred, they’ve also recently created a pastry guide.
The Chef’s Garden constantly adjusts its crops to meet chef demand. For example, one of Skyler’s favorite products is red ribbon sorrel, and he’s not alone, which prompted the farm to increase its offerings to five types of sorrel, including “zesty lemon sticks” which are firm and long enough to be used as edible skewers or stirrers.
After Alex’s presentation, Lee Jones appears in full Chef’s Garden regalia. He tells the story of the family farm, with a focus on certain milestones, such as the day a local chef who had moved to the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix, Arizona, called for an order from his favorite farm back home. With no shipping program in place at the time, the Joneses packed the produce into a box and sent it south in the cargo bay of a Greyhound bus… the seed, so to speak, of today’s packing and shipping enterprise.
The next segment of the tour focuses on the science of agriculture as we are led to a series of semitrailers and greenhouses. A retrofitted semitrailer known as “the lab” is home to studies in soil, seed, and result. Patriarch Bob Jones and his team explain how The Chef’s Garden works backwards, adjusting conditions to achieve a desired outcome. For example, soil is tested to be sure it’s optimal for specific plants. The growing conditions of other plants are tweaked to coax out maximum flavor and shelf-life through improved cell strength. The lab is also where seed lots from more than thirty-eight countries are evaluated on a gravity table, and where plants are dehydrated to glean their net weight, another useful factor in extending that precious shelf-life.
Mr. Jones also explains that The Chef’s Garden doesn’t class itself as an “organic” farm; rather, it adheres to traditional practices that fall under the popular umbrella “sustainable,” but actually date back generations, with a focus on the soil, on “taking care of the ground.”
Then it’s off to a greenhouse and a briefing from Greenhouse Product Manager Mike Ineson, who tells us about food safety, then treats us to a tasting: pea tendrils, popcorn shoots (they taste of sweet corn at the base), Midnight Spice (“we make up some of the names”), micro carrot top, violet tat soi, and garlic root, which is just what it sounds like—the stringy root of garlic which the farm began marketing at the suggestion of the growers, who began to wonder if it was edible.
The day continues with a visit to a greenhouse where Skyler and I join Greenhouse Growers George and Tiffany Moser, who put us to work harvesting baby carrots, then invite us to drive a tractor (who could resist?). We then return to the Culinary Vegetable Institute for a private tasting at which Greenhouse Manager Judit Ender guides Skyler through a sampling of more than twenty-five items, everything from a “petite garden collage” to micro mint balm to micro mountain mint (it has a wasabi-like kick) to crunchy, peppery watercress blooms to a mixed mustard blend to my personal favorite, Citrus Begonia, chip-shaped petals that pack a tart and juicy punch.
Our day is bookended by the return of Jamie and Carl. “We thought it would be fun to cook together,” says Jamie. Next thing I know, I’m engaged in a Top Chef-like exercise, whipping up a farro dish on the fly to accompany more ambitious improvisations from the professionals in my midst: Skyler dreams up a lamb dish while Jamie decides to tackle baked Alaska for the first time. Then we sit down to dinner with members of the Jones family, a casual ending and welcome decompression after what has proved to be an informative, but also long and tiring day.
It isn’t until I am alone, packing for the flight home and getting ready for bed, that I realize the point of the dinner–not the meal itself, but the preparation. Our little improvisation, drawing on vegetables and microgreens from the farm, underscored the relationship between chef and farmer, the ongoing dialogue that informs restaurant menus from coast to coast. Of course, I was just dabbling in both worlds for a few hours, but out to dinner in New York City the next night, I find that I have a renewed appreciation not just for the vegetables on the menu but for just about everything on offer, reminded what it takes to get all that great product we take for granted out of nature’s world, into our urban kitchens, and onto our plates.