“Have you had the blossoms from cilantro? They are quite amazing,” says chef Govind Armstrong, handing over a flowering stem he gently pinched from a plant. “That will change your life right there. It’s so intense yet subtle. We use it just to garnish plates and in salsa verde.”
We are standing by the raised-bed garden outside Armstrong’s restaurant, Post & Beam in Baldwin Hills, with his daughter, 4-year-old Willow. She’s relaxing in the early afternoon sun looking adoringly at her father as he talks with his visitor about growing his small yet useful edible patch.
“This last round, we planted four or five different types of cucumbers and did more tomatoes and herbs. And in a week or two, the basil will be ready to use,” Armstrong says. Already an avid gardener, he was one of the first Los Angeles chefs to use a dedicated space for growing his own provisions at the now-defunct Beverly Hills restaurant Chadwick, which he started in 2000 with another up-and-comer, Ben Ford.
Surveying the five raised beds in the outside corner of his award-winning eatery, which has made Jonathan Gold’s Best 101 list and L.A. Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants, Armstrong says, “It’s not going to supply the restaurant with everything we need to offer. It would require a lot more space, but our garden was meant to be very functional. We could have done more seating and it would have been more beneficial to the business, (but) the garden also is giving something back to the community. We taught gardening classes in the beginning with Geri Miller.” (Miller is the owner of the popular urban farm service Home Grown Edible Landscaping, which worked with Armstrong on Post & Beam and his Venice restaurant, Willie Jane’s, as well as other restaurant kitchen aromatic plots.)
Armstrong isn’t the only L.A. chef with a green thumb. Many of today’s City of Angels culinary elite have a garden dedicated to serving their restaurants’ needs, from n/naka’s Niki Nakayama, who plants hard-to-find items, to Otium’s Tim Hollingsworth, who grows some of his own produce. And West L.A.’s neighborhood joint Ayara Thai is taking the farm-to-table approach a step further by implementing a new community-based composting and gardening program at Emerson Community Garden, where owner Vanda Asapahu pays her staff to volunteer and compost. Later in the year, she plans to plant lemongrass, Thai basil and kaffir limes for use in her bottled sauces and menu items at her restaurant.
Nakayama, chef-owner of the nationally known n/naka, echoes Armstrong's sentiments. “One of the most important things of the garden is I get to show my customer the seasonality of the foods we make,” she says. At her home raised, boxed garden, designed in conjunction with Farmscape, she cultivates Japanese edibles that are hard to find, such as yuzu citrus and the minuscule Konasu eggplant, which are part of her restaurant’s kaiseki menu.
At Nakayama’s new house — she is selling the San Gabriel Valley house where she had a 5-year-old garden — newly seeded lilac bell peppers, red vein sorrel, shishito peppers and lemon cucumbers are taking root. “It’s not that these specific ones are not available through vendors, it’s more because the taste and quality is so much nicer in their flavors,” Nakayama says. She also supplements some of her dishes through foraging.
“When I went to Japan, I saw homes with these growing gardens. They utilized what they grew instead of just buying, [thereby] making sure it was the best,” she says.
Downtown’s newest gastronomic star is Otium, and its chef, Tim Hollingsworth. He works with L.A. Urban Farms, known for its space-age aeroponic towers of dangling roots, misted with nutrient-dense water. Ideal for urban spaces, these Star Trek–like patented vertical “pots” are a great solution for urban gardening, Hollingsworth says. “It takes a while to get (a garden) going and till the soil,” he says. “Going vertical was an intelligent way of approaching the needs and wants of a restaurant.”
These verdant gardens aren’t a cost-saving measure or even a great business decision. The gardens are small and still need to be supplanted with farm or vendor produce, but all the edibles grown in each chef garden are used. The amount grown depends on how well each vegetable does in its micro-climate. Armstrong says, “In a perfect world, [the garden] would really help my food cost. But it’s very volatile and you still have to buy materials. There is labor involved. But the beauty of it is right before service, the cooks will come out and snip the basil to garnish the pizzas.”
With the bubbling sound of planters being watered, Hollingsworth sums it up: “Order a box of nasturtiums from the produce company, and it’s pretty much standard; it’s what you get. What you don’t see is a baby stage or, after the flowers blossom and the petals fall off, a berry is left. You can pickle and brine it and make into a caper. There is so much more life to the vegetable. The sheer fact that the vegetables grow at specific stages and its use might not be accessible from a produce company or even from a farmers market, for that matter.”
For many chefs, having a restaurant garden of their own is a dream. In L.A., it often becomes a reality. It is perhaps not particularly cost-efficient, but these gardens are part of the mix that makes this sun-soaked city one of the best restaurant towns in the world. Something to ponder as you eat your garden salad of freshly pruned cilantro blossoms, pickled nasturtium berries and wasabi arugula with red-veined sorrel greens.