The Farm That Feels Like a Produce Party
Chef Aaron Hoskins makes the pilgrimage to The Chef's Garden in Ohio.
November 28, 2017
By Aaron Hoskins | Photo via iStock, Collage ChefsFeed
A small, beige farmhouse rests on sandy lake bottom soil, just to my right.
It’s 80 degrees and raining, but not hard enough to put a damper on my excitement. I know how well it bodes for the fields around me and those who work them.
I grew up in Ohio. I left it before I found a reason to stay, and have increasingly missed what now makes it inviting: its hills, fields, and the people so unshakeable and giving they might as well be of the soil themselves. I spent my college years an hour to the west, only passing through this region on the way to Cleveland, or for a quick detour to Cedar Point. I spent five years in Northern Ohio painfully unaware of what was happening in Huron, population 7,045.
What’s happening in Huron, more specifically, is The Chef’s Garden, a pillar of light in an increasingly drab system of factory farms and mass production. It’s run by a man always clad in suspenders and a bowtie, Farmer Lee Jones. Jones towers above those around him; he stands near shoulder-to-shoulder with me and I’m all of about six feet, three inches. His voice is sturdy. His conviction, contagious; there are few things Jones believes in more than the ground he’s standing on, and he’s known as much for his charismatic uniform as he is for his passionate representation of the farm and its backward-yet-forward thinking ideology. And while Jones may be the face of the farm, his father remains the patriarch. Bob Jones Sr. has a kind, sharp smile, and oversized pants held up solely by the tension of his suspenders against his shoulders. His laugh, heartfelt and wavering slightly from decades of repetition, reminds me of my grandfather. Maybe it’s an Ohio thing.
The Chef’s Garden, a fantasy world of perfect produce, carries a Neverland-esque appeal to those of us in the industry who dream about flavor. But the true heroism of the farm lies in their dedication to a sustainable lifecycle of both the field and the workforce, pursuing quality over all else, and confronting the shortfalls of large-scale farming while embracing modern systems and technology. They preach a gospel of crop rotation and experimentation. Test their own batches of seed for viability. Even allow large portions of the farm to remain fallow to prevent damage to the soil. All with the goal sustainably growing the highest quality produce they can.
Farmers and chefs are woven from the same cloth. Both endlessly seek to provide the world with the best version of their personal and professional contribution. Chefs often use their food and restaurants as an extension of themselves, wrapping their own story into the dishes they serve; farmers find this same outlet through the precision and pride in the soil they sow and the quality of the crops they reap. The connection between the people who cook and the people who grow is crucial and everlasting, and The Chef’s Garden often serves as a reminder of what the hell we’re doing and why. A farm like this doesn’t just provide you with impeccable produce. It opens the door to the realities of our modern food system and stops you in your tracks to ask: “Are we ok with how we treat our food?”
In an entry hallway, framed photographs of every notable chef you can think of line the walls. Achatz. Adria. Keller. Those perfect little carrots you had at Restaurant Daniel? Probably flown in from Ohio. The garnishes on that $295 tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park? Yep. Those too. Name a famous chef with a Michelin star attached to their name and they’re probably ordering produce from Farmer Lee Jones. The Chef’s Garden was growing all of those cool baby lettuces and microgreens before you were into piling them onto every plate.
A greenhouse, wall-to-wall with staggering quantities of delicate microgreens, is a beautiful Mondrian grid. Reds, yellows, greens. We’re fed samples and instructed on each of the varieties, plunging me into some kind of existentialist mini-salad pop-up. (Five stars. Would eat here again. If you’ve never tasted Szechuan peppercorn micros, order a few.) We cruise by rows of beans and peas, of greens at all levels of growth. Baby lettuces for fragile garnishes and salads, overgrown greens for their flowers and blooms.
There are no mega-machines or massive warehouses filled with picking machines or sorters at The Chef’s Garden. No corporate sponsorships or freewheeling PR guy to tell you why chemicals are going to save the world. Most of the buildings around the farm are modest and makeshift— they favor older, smaller tractors to reduce soil compression— with its more ingenious practices hidden in plain sight. Like the soil, which has been warmed since April by underground water pipes, heated by burning something those famous Ohio corn fields never seem to run out of: old, dried corn cobs. Every movement and assembly is purposeful, every detail meticulous. Produce is picked to order here.
If more people thought like they do here, it’s easy to imagine that our industry and our planet would be in a much better place. Decisions are made with weight and integrity. Quality is never sacrificed for quantity. It’s a lesson in logistics and execution that every chef should learn from. We learn that the farm also uses H-1B visas for seasonal farm workers, bringing back many of the same workers year after year. The average tenure of those workers is 11 years. The longest 25. Many have become citizens. Jones's brother, Bob Jr., brags about “making the wall” at one worker’s home—in a snapshot framed and hung next to pictures of family and Jesus.
You don’t have to be famous or have a Michelin star to make the line of photographs on the wall at The Chef's Garden. You just have to have an interest in the way that they do things. You have to care, and that’s it.