What happens when local chefs try their hand at microfarming? Sometimes the hard work yields a sweet taste of success. Other times it’s just toil and trouble.
“I was in Megève and ordered a salad. I watched five guys go out to pick everything for it. For me, it was better than eating foie gras and caviar,” recounts 2941’s executive chef Bertrand Chemel, who was raised in Auvergne Montlucon in Central France.
Determined to bring a taste of the French countryside to diners in Falls Church, Chemel six years ago planted a garden alongside 2941’s sprawling patio and koi ponds. The 10-by-25-foot plot is visible from the dining room’s soaring windows.
He wasn’t quite prepared for the yard’s clay-packed soil, which experts from nearby Merrifield Garden Center helped remedy by layering it with enriched earth. Or for the trial-and-error plantings that revealed how sensitive chervil is to heat, and that zucchini spreads out too much to be worth the effort for such a small yield. “What am I going to do with six blossoms?” Chemel asked when faced with one crop’s limited bounty.
Since then, he’s fine-tuned his plantings based on what grows best. Some of the more interesting flavors that make their way into his kitchen include parcel—a combination of parsley and celery—and lovage, which tastes like celery on steroids. Chemel also has an affinity for hot and sweet peppers, including Bolivian peppers, chile de árbol and cayenne, all of which grow abundantly. This year he hopes to cultivate green peppercorns from seed.
In addition, a variety of herbs flavor menu items ranging from appetizers and mains to specialty cocktails and desserts. Chemel tops chilled, compressed watermelon with fresh Thai basil, lemon thyme and lemon basil. His potato-crusted rockfish is served with a sorrel beurre blanc, which last summer was made with Russian sorrel from the garden. Pastry Chef Caitlin Dysart likes to pair delicate verbena with peaches, and lemon balm with blueberries. She also relishes selecting which of the garden’s five types of basil will go best with summer strawberries from the Falls Church Farmers Market. The entire kitchen staff invests time in the garden—from planting and watering to weeding and harvesting.
“It’s not about saving money,” Chemel says. “It’s about being outside with the plants, and experiencing their true flavors.”
Hot and Sweet
Executive Chef Thomas Elder has overseen Härth’s terrace garden ever since the restaurant opened in the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner in 2011. What started as a showcase of the world’s hottest peppers (Elder incorporates his trio of scorchers—Ghost, Naga Viper and Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” peppers—into sauces, purées and even lollipops) has since expanded to feature a selection of berry bushes and specialty herbs, such as Cuban oregano and curry. Measuring a tidy 200 square feet, the micro-farm produces an edible menagerie, grown from seed, that also includes stevia (a naturally sweet sugar substitute), figs, nutmeg and lemongrass, all of which find their way into cocktails and other menu items.
And yet, Elder says the real stars of Härth’s mini-farming operation are the 200,000 bees in five hives that last year produced more than 400 pounds of artisanal honey. Though an apiary professional visits annually to offer guidance, Elder handles much of the day-to-day hive work himself, including harvesting. The sweet yield is a key ingredient in his signature bacon jam, and serves as an accompaniment on the restaurant’s popular cheese plate.
To share his fascination with bees, Elder built a box with clear sides that he takes to local schools to show off the inner workings of the hive inside it. “People are drawn to bees. They inspire conversation,” says the chef, who can also be found, on occasion, discussing the wonders of the tiny pollinators with young hotel guests. Lucky visitors often leave with a small jar of liquid gold—and firsthand knowledge of where it came from.
When you shred 1,600 pounds of spring onions each week—to accompany the 65,000 roasted ducks you sell per year—garnishes are not an afterthought.
That’s why the owners of Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church also own and operate the 133-acre Grass Roots Farm in Purcellville, where a staff of three grows the jumbo spring onions, along with garlic sprouts, leeks and Napa cabbage exclusively for the restaurant. Every crop is harvested by hand, and the fresh produce is delivered twice a week.
Farming has long been a second vocation for the Tsui family, which started out cultivating 40 acres in Centreville before moving its agricultural venture to Purcellville in the late 1980s.
Bob Tsui, a third-generation co-owner who worked as a government contractor before joining the family business in 2011, recalls summers as a teenager growing the giant onions. The crop is planted in the early spring, he explains, and in July the baby onions are transported to larger fields, where they grow to their full height of 2 1/2 feet.
Tender garlic sprouts are among the farm’s unique crops, in that the sprouts never touch soil or see sunlight. Rather, the entire hydroponic growth cycle takes place inside a specially built barn. The mild-tasting sprouts are cut from the garlic by hand (two cuts per bulb), after which the spent vegetation is distributed in the fields as fertilizer.
Even with a dedicated growing source, the restaurant doesn’t always have an unending supply of garlic sprouts. They’re plentiful in fall and winter but harder to come by in warmer months; so regular customers often call ahead to check on their availability. An inside tip? Go on Fridays.
Joël Thévoz estimates he spent more than $150,000 building the rooftop system that for three years helped supply tilapia, micro-greens and vegetables to Main Event Caterers, the business he owns in South Arlington with his wife, Nancy Goodman. The tiered ecosystem—comprising 4,000 gallons of fish tanks and 600 square feet of soil-free growing beds—was a water-based operation that relied largely on reclaimed rainwater collected in barrels. The water circulated through the fish tanks, becoming nutrient rich from the tilapia waste, then naturally fertilized the plants and filtered through shale beds before flowing back into the fish tanks, forming a closed circuit.
The system didn’t produce enough to keep up with demand (the company caters roughly 1,200 events each year), but Thévoz says that was never the point.
“It was always meant as an experiment,” explains the chef, whose company has long embraced eco-friendly practices such as composting and biodiesel. The aquaponic system was simply an attempt to do something productive with 25,000 square feet of unused rooftop space.
As a novice farmer, Thévoz says he made plenty of mistakes along the way, including killing an entire crop of strawberries when he added too much salt to the fish food (a testament, he says, to just how delicately the system had to be balanced).
When Main Event’s revenues grew 30 percent in 2013 and Thévoz found himself in need of more refrigeration space on the roof, he considered moving the aquaponics system to family farmland in Stafford County. But he knew he would need a staff to run it, which made the cost prohibitive.
Instead, he offered to donate the entire system to Arlington County for use as a community farming operation or school program. (At press time, he was hoping for good news on that front.)
Meanwhile, he’s hanging on to one piece of his growing venture as a souvenir. Like Elder, Thévoz has a thing for bees. After losing five hives in the 2012 derecho, he reintroduced bees to the rooftop in 2013. When he brought two of those hives to his house in Arlington’s Claremont neighborhood, he found that they fared better in the shade of his yard than in the open elements of South Four Mile Run.
So while the rooftop aquaponic system is no longer, Thévoz is continuing to share his backyard with the bees, ever-mindful of the most critical lesson he learned during his brief foray into urban farming: He needs to carry an EpiPen because he’s allergic to bee stings.
Jessica Strelitz is a Falls Church-based food, wine and spirits writer who considers it a success if her basil plant makes it to August.
How do local chefs incorporate the fruits of their labor into tasty dishes and refreshing beverages? Try these recipes at home.
The Chupacabra, 2941
3 cucumber rounds, sliced thin
1 ounce blanco tequila (El Charro)
1 ounce dry vermouth (Dolin)
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
4 sprigs of mint
Muddle fresh cucumber in tequila. Add ice and all other ingredients. Shake thoroughly and double strain into a rocks glass filled with ice.
Lemon Verbena Frozen Parfait, 2941
Suggested wine pairing: Cave Carod Clairette de Die, NV, a sparkling semisweet white wine from the Rhone
1/2 cup lemon verbena leaves*
2 cups heavy cream
5 egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
- Chop verbena leaves and add them to the heavy cream. Leave verbena in the cream and refrigerate overnight to steep.
- The next day, pour the cream through a fine mesh strainer to remove the leaves. Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form; set aside.
- To prepare the meringue: Place the egg whites, sugar and salt in a medium bowl and set over a pan of simmering water. Whisk the mixture until the whites are hot (131°F). Remove the egg whites from the heat and whisk until cool and soft peaks form.
- Using a spatula, gently fold the whipped cream into the meringue. Portion into cups or ramekins and allow to set in the freezer for a few hours.
- Serve with fresh fruit, lemon verbena leaves and shortbread.
*Chocolate mint or lemon thyme can be substituted for verbena.
Almond-Crusted Tilapia with Microgreens, Main Event Caterers
Suggested wine pairing: a Spanish Albariño or Cava
1 whole tilapia, cleaned and separated into two fillets
1 cup almonds
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon panko breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg white, lightly mixed with a touch of water
1/4 cup fresh chives (cut into 1-inch batons)
1/4 cup mixed microgreens
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for pan-frying
Pinch of sea salt
1 lemon, sliced
- In a food processor, coarsely grind the almonds to a rough chop. Add flour, panko, Old Bay, salt and pepper. Blitz once or twice to incorporate without turning almonds into powder. Put mixture into a shallow dish.
- Heat olive oil in a wide skillet on medium heat. While the skillet is heating, brush the tilapia fillets with egg white (a thin coating), then dredge them in the almond/flour mixture, pressing lightly to make sure the mixture sticks to the fish.
- Place the fillets into the skillet and cook 3 to 5 minutes on each side until golden brown.
- In a small mixing bowl, mix the chives and microgreens. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
- Serve fish with a spritz of fresh lemon and topped with the microgreens salad.
Sloppy Bobs, Härth
Suggested wine pairing: RdV Vineyards Rendezvous or Glen Manor Vineyards Hodder Hill
1 pound ground beef
4 ounces white onion, cut into a small dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces ketchup
3 ounces barbeque sauce
1/10 teaspoon roasted ghost chili pepper purée* (Note: Handle with care and consider wearing gloves because chili oil can burn the skin. Jalapeño, serrano, African bird’s eye, habañero or Scotch bonnet peppers can be substituted for ghost peppers, although the quantity of the purée may need to be adjusted for desired heat.)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 dozen mini-brioche buns (2-inch diameter)
2 tablespoons butter
Härth Herb Oil
Mix the following ingredients in a small bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight. Mixture will keep up to one week in the refrigerator.
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves, roughly chopped
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepperDirections:
Heat a large skillet and brown the beef. Remove the beef and strain off the grease. Sauté the onions and garlic for six minutes, then add the beef back to the pan. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Cut buns in half, spread with butter and toast in sauté pan until browned and heated through. Spoon meat onto buns and serve.
*For the pepper purée: Coat the peppers in herb oil and roast them in a 350°F oven until soft. Remove them from the oven, place them into a bowl and cover until cooled. Do not remove the skins or seeds. Once cool, pulse in a food processor until smooth.