Restaurant chefs' gardens are popping up in unusual places, but nowhere more unlikely than in the midst of downtown L.A.'s skyscrapers. Flourishing on an upper level of the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall is an outdoor rooftop garden — public at that — that lets visitors take in the now iconic, curved, stainless steel exterior close-up and provides space for urban acreage tended by Patina's chefs.
Within the Blue Ribbon Garden (named for the Music Center's volunteer support group) is a feast of unusual herbs and edible flowers: These plants are the project of Patina executive chef Tony Esnault. Look closely among the geraniums and ornamental grasses to find just-planted nasturtiums, cowslip primrose, rosemary and fennel. The year-old garden is not in dedicated raised beds — nor is it easily apparent. And that's how Chef Esnault and landscape designer Melinda Taylor conceived it: The edible plants, which change seasonally, are hidden in plain sight.
Mere steps above Patina's showy Grand Avenue location, and under the noses of symphony-goers and madly photo-snapping tourists, the kitchen garden is well-camouflaged and mixed in with the ornamental plantings.
“I'm trying to grow things I don't find at the farmers market,” says Esnault, who sources from several local farmers markets as well, including the Wednesday market in Santa Monica. But don't expect common herbs like basil or rows of corn atop the landmark building.
“To make it more special for my guests, I grow things that are hard to find, such as white and blue borage, fennel and violets,” says the French-born chef, who grew up in the Loire Valley, where he learned about farming from both his grandmothers, one of whom was a devoted organic farmer. Atop the Disney Hall, Esnault also keeps it organic and as natural as possible. An initial problem with snails was solved with more snails — killer snails, the chef says. Throughout his career, Esnault has maintained his own garden, whether in Hoboken, N.J., or on his San Francisco fire escape (until the fire department killed that project).
Some plants, such as the thriving rosemary, took hold immediately. A bumper crop of fennel was dried; Esnault uses it every day in the kitchen, particularly in Patina's dish of bass with fennel sauce, finished with feathery fennel leaves. He has trained his staff to cut herbs properly and sends them into the garden in the afternoon to harvest the tiny blue rosemary flowers that serve as garnish for Patina's Colorado lamb.
Peaking now are Alpine violet flowers that add bite and color to Patina's market garden salad. Easy-to-grow chickweed, which Esnault says tastes just like spinach when cooked, makes an appearance on the menu, too — as do the brightly colored nasturtium flowers that soon will add very local color to salad plates.
A map of the garden is available at the restaurant or downloadable via Patina's website. With any garden, there are seasonal additions as plants die out. However, don't expect to find a compost pile or composter in this singular urban garden — not surprisingly, one didn't make the aesthetic cut.
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