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They can dig it

A restaurant’s garden, either on the roof or a nearby farm, inspires chefs — and supports sustainability

By Devra First
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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On a recent afternoon on Dot Ave., trucks are hoisting what appears to be dirt. Tons of it. This growing medium is bound for the roof of Ledge Kitchen & Drinks. Owners Brendan and Greg Feeney and Mike Ahern and chef Marco Suarez are planting a 2,000-square-foot garden on top of their Dorchester restaurant.

There, over the city street, they are creating a pastoral landscape of herbs, squash, tomatoes, peas, pumpkins, and more — eventually maybe even mushrooms. Putting that much weight atop a building isn’t for amateurs. Recover Green Roofs, a Somerville company, is overseeing the installation. “We’re looking to pull the first product at the beginning to middle of next month,’’ Suarez says. Their harvest will make its way into the dishes served at the restaurant.

In recent years, chefs have turned increasingly toward local, seasonal ingredients. As a natural extension of this, some are taking it a step further — or closer, really — growing their own in pots, on roofs, occasionally even on farms started for the purpose. Forget house-made. We’re on to house-grown.

High-profile restaurateurs around the country have long been on board, from New York chef and sustain able-food advocate Dan Barber (Blue Hill at Stone Barns) to Chicago’s Rick Bayless (Topolobampo) to Cambridge’s Ana Sortun (Oleana). But restaurants are increasingly raising rooftop gardens — in Atlanta, Baltimore, Beverly Hills, Brooklyn, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., Providence, Seattle, and more. Many cities offer tax breaks or other financial incentives to convert rooftops into green space. So-called “green roofs’’ reduce storm water runoff and help combat urban heat, among other benefits. In Boston, Sam Yoon, the former city councilor and mayoral candidate who is relocating to Washington, D.C., has been perhaps the biggest advocate of such incentives.

Local establishments from quick-casual chain Vapiano to bastion of fine dining L’Espalier are flexing their green thumbs — the former with an in-house herb garden, the latter over several acres on chef-owner Frank McClelland’s Apple Street Farm in Essex. In Cambridge, Henrietta’s Table recently put in a rooftop garden with the help of the Farm School, which teaches children and adults about sustainable agriculture. Green City Growers, which installs residential and corporate vegetable gardens, is working with several food businesses this year: Ledge, burger chain b. good, and Roslindale catering companies Tables of Content and Gourmet Caterers.

“We’re definitely seeing more of it,’’ says Green City owner Jessie Banhazl.

Some of the advantages for a chef are clear. If you grow and harvest it yourself, you know it’s good.

“For quality and freshness, there’s nothing better,’’ says chef Chris Coombs, who has a garden on the roof of dbar, just up the road from Ledge in Dorchester. “Most produce, even local produce, is a day out of the ground. We can go up right before service, and an hour later it’s served, clipped right from the roof and never refrigerated.’’

This is his fourth year gardening atop the restaurant, in a space reachable only by a narrow ladder. His list of crops reads like a mouthwatering romp through early summer: English peas, snap peas, arugula, mesclun mix, red leaf lettuce, chervil, chives, parsley, tarragon, sorrel. This year, he’s growing 23 types of herbs and about 20 different kinds of heirloom tomatoes. Fall will bring beets and Chantenay carrots.

“We end up being about 25 percent produce sustainable later in the season, just off the rooftop,’’ Coombs says. He grows between 90 and 100 percent of the herbs used in the dbar kitchen. “It’s really heavily dependent on the weather. So far it’s been an excellent, excellent spring. It’s making quite an impact on the menu.’’

Then there is a slightly subtler advantage: inspiration. What’s coming up in the fields or the garden helps shape what appears on the plate. It’s a dynamic, exciting way to cook.

“The symmetry between doing a full-scale farm and the restaurants is poetry in motion,’’ says McClelland, who also oversees the Sel de la Terre restaurants and Au Soleil Catering. “We really work our composition around the products picked on a daily basis. The energy it brings to the brigades at all the restaurants influences the cuisine immensely.’’

At Apple Street Farm, he says, two acres are under cultivation; he tends the land with a team that includes his wife, his son, a live-in college student, and a schoolteacher on summer vacation. They raise tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, root vegetables, greens, herbs, raspberries, strawberries, and flowers, as well as hens for eggs and bees for honey. This is Apple Street’s second season, and it now offers a CSA and a dinner series that brings guests to the farm for a meal made from its bounty. (The next one takes place July 23.)

“Just to pull carrots out of the ground, the perfume alone is intoxicating,’’ McClelland says.

Steve Johnson of Rendezvous in Central Square finds both peace and purpose in his rooftop garden. “I come into the restaurant, check the answering machine, and go straight up to see how nice the garden looks in the morning. It’s a little urban oasis, for sure,’’ he says.

But there’s an educational element to it, too. “For a 22-year-old line cook who has worked in restaurants for two years, fresh thyme is basically something that comes in a little bundle with a rubber band around it. This happens over and over with my staff: I take them up and they go, ‘Wow! That’s what it looks like!’ ’’

Johnson grows radishes, peppers, and a few other things, but mainly herbs. “It doesn’t supply all our needs, but it serves a purpose,’’ he says. With 14 bushes of rosemary, he hasn’t purchased the herb in two years. This year he’s growing enough mint and chives that he probably won’t have to buy them, either. “I never viewed it as anything that was going to really save me money,’’ he says. “But a pound of rosemary a week is 10 bucks, and I’m going on 120 weeks, so that’s more than $1,000 I’ve saved in rosemary. It goes to the employee Christmas party.’’

The first few years of farming or gardening require an investment, but after that it can pay off for a restaurant. Last year, Coombs says, he grew just under $5,000 in produce on dbar’s roof; this year he’s shooting for $6,000-$7,000.

McClelland says he lost money on Apple Street Farm in its first season; this year he may break even.

But none of these chefs is doing it for financial reasons. “I’m doing it to inspire myself and the chefs and everyone who works with me,’’ McClelland says. “You’re going to see more chefs and restaurateurs moving in this direction. In five to 10 years, it’s going to be more of the norm. If you’re really serious about your cuisine, you’re going to do this.’’

Increasingly, culinary ambition and environmental awareness go hand in hand. Sustainability is a buzzword; chefs today think about how meat, fish, and fowl are raised, how far produce has traveled to get to their kitchens, the impact of production methods. Growing their own ingredients is about creating delicious food, and for a long time to come.

So why go to the trouble of installing a giant garden way up in the sky in the middle of Dorchester? “It’s the way we should be going,’’ says Suarez of Ledge Kitchen & Drinks. “We’re not treating this earth well. Other cities have tax incentives. We are hoping Boston will come around — that’s part of the deal.’’

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

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