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For the Garden: Freshen Up

Home and restaurant kitchen gardens provide the ultimate in quality control

The heart of the home is its kitchen, and if you are fortunate enough to have one, the kitchen garden is its soul. The French call it a potager: a charming, well-designed garden that uses every square foot of space, a perfect blend of beauty and utility that produces herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers.

Kitchen gardens have been around since gatherers realized it made much more sense to plant gardens than endlessly wander through the wild. It’s the ultimate in practical gardening, harvesting the freshest and most flavorful produce right outside your kitchen door. What could be easier or tastier than that?

Potagers often feature patterned beds and arches where plants are selected to capitalize on flavor, fragrance and form. What a joy to open your door to find the freshest produce right at your fingertips! And you’re in control – no more worries about contaminated cantaloupes, listeria-laced lettuce or tainted peanuts.

With the growing interest in sustainable food, buying local and the farm-to-table movement, many chefs are also beginning to add tending their kitchen gardens to their to-do lists. According to a recent report from the National Restaurant Association, one-third of 2,000 chefs surveyed named gardens as a top trend. It gives chefs much more control over quality and provides menus that reflect what looks good that morning.

“I’m all for it,” says local food writer Robert Peyton. “It helps the chef focus on the freshness of the ingredients. You can’t get fresher than having it come out of your own garden.”

With its world-renowned cuisine, it is no surprise that Louisiana is leading the way when it comes to restaurant gardens. In New Orleans there are many restaurants taking full advantage of their kitchen gardens.

“Our chefs have been doing it for some time now with great success,” says Wendy Waren with the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “It’s definitely a trend, and Louisiana is at the forefront.”

Sometimes the gardens are small-scale: Bridge Lounge grows mint for its mojitos. And sometimes, as with Ye Olde College Inn’s bucolic plot on South Carrollton Avenue, there are restaurant gardens as beautiful as any old-fashioned French potager.

Chef and owner Johnny Blancher didn’t set out to change the culinary world. He and his family, who also own and operate Rock ‘n’ Bowl, just capitalized on an opportunity.

“After Katrina, so much was unknown, and buying the surrounding land around the restaurant seemed like the right thing to do,” Blancher says. “When we had the assets, it just made sense to use them for gardening. It wasn’t a big plan. It’s just something that evolved, piece by piece, and it continues to expand.”

Blancher and his two-man garden crew will soon be tending several different plots, totaling almost 4 acres of land. In raised beds, they cultivate a wide variety of crops, from broccoli to tarragon. They even use fresh sugar cane in some of their specialty drinks and grill shrimp on sugar cane skewers harvested from their garden.

“Even just a few days can make a big difference in taste,” Blancher says.

As we walk through the Fig Street garden plot, Blancher grabs a handful of lemon thyme, smiles and brings the herb to his nose to breathe the scent in deeply.

“This is so good,” he says. “We use this a lot for marinades. Freshness you cannot deny.”

They also grow all of the restaurant’s cut flowers, and Blancher mentions it’s been months since they purchased flowers for their tables.

Although the garden supplies much of the produce Blancher and executive chef Bradley McGehee use, they also supplement with food from such local growers as Crescent City Farmers Market and Hollygrove Market & Farm. They also use oranges, key limes, persimmons and figs grown at the Straight Stick Ranch, Blancher’s grandfather’s 1,000-acre property in Vermilion Parish. Blancher fondly remembers summers spent there and believes the experience informs the way he now cooks.

In April, Blancher will begin serving grass-fed beef from cattle raised on the ranch at the family’s new restaurant, Straight Stick Ranch Burger Co.

Another important part to Blancher’s potager is the Cock-a-doodle Convent, a small chicken coop housing a dozen or so chickens. Their eggs are often featured in dishes such as the house-made boudin with a poached yard egg and roasted-pepper hollandaise.

Blancher says he gets all kinds of people coming through his doors, from Tea Party conservatives to progressive liberals – and they all agree on one thing: Garden-to-table is a great restaurant trend.

“I’m having a blast,” he says. “I get to see things grow, watch the seasons change and see how nature works. The garden keeps your creative juices flowing. It sparks interest. It’s not just the freshness of our produce but the ability to walk out into the garden, see what’s available and build a menu with culinary creativity. That’s what keeps our cooking fresh.”

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