Local restaurants going hyperlocal

Kitchen gardens a learning experience for customers and staff

People are paying more attention to where their food comes from and restaurants have been listening. While it’s now commonplace for eateries to feature ingredients from small local producers some have taken the next step and started growing food right on their property — restaurants like River Café and Rouge are taking advantage of their surroundings while others like downtownfood are heading for higher ground or at Market gardening indoors on a smaller scale.

“I’ve always wanted to grow my own food. I’ve always had an obsession with it” says Darren Maclean chef and owner of downtownfood which built a rooftop garden dubbed the Urban Ag Project last summer.

“Everyone said that we couldn’t grow anything downtown which I thought was total bullshit. So we tried it and we grew a whole bunch [of food] actually. It was crazy.”

A few blocks down on Stephen Avenue a garden is also blooming on top of Catch. Going into its third growing season the restaurant has been successful in growing and harvesting tomatoes peas kohlrabi carrots and nasturtium as well as herbs like rosemary and thyme.

“[The roof is] very hot it’s very dry and it’s very windy” says executive chef Kyle Groves. “Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge to find things that work up there but we seem to have had some luck here recently.”

At downtownfood Maclean has taken a decidedly experimental approach. In addition to growing traditional Alberta crops like tomatoes greens and root vegetables he had a few beehives and was also able to harvest fruit from a fig tree in the hottest corner of the garden.

“Last year it was just to prove that we could grow things on a roof in downtown Calgary and to find out what would work…. We just planted everything” he says.

Both chefs are hoping to expand their gardens with greenhouses this year which will allow them to continue producing food past the short growing season.

While Catch and downtownfood are confined to their urban rooftops Rouge has the luxury of growing on just under an acre of land behind its restaurant where squash horseradish parsnips zucchini peas crabapples pin cherries Saskatoon berries and strawberries are just some of the fruits and vegetables grown in the restaurant’s lush garden with support from co-owner Olivier Reynaud and co-owner/executive chef Paul Rogalski.

“Olivier is from France and had always grown his own stuff there and Paul loves gardening so the garden has always been a part of [Rouge]” says chef de cuisine Jamie Harling.

On a much smaller scale Market has an “indoor garden” in the form of a commercial-sized Urban Cultivator a refrigerator-like machine that grows up to 16 types of vegetables herbs or microgreens year-round. Staying true to her restaurant’s philosophy of sourcing local wherever possible owner Vanessa Salopek was convinced that the Urban Cultivator was a “must-have” after seeing it on CBC’s Dragon’s Den .

“It definitely is a conversation starter. We welcome guests to come up and talk to our chefs and they always ask about the Urban Cultivator” she says. “It is definitely a real unique piece and it definitely makes Market what it is.”

The other restaurants have found that customers are curious about their gardens as well.

“That was the thing that I wasn’t expecting was any sort of response really” says Maclean. “The greenspace was quite lush and surprisingly so. Everything did really well so we had customers coming in because they saw our rooftop from their skyscraper.”

“It’s an all-positive thing” says Groves. “People are happy to know that we’re taking an interest in growing our own food and trying to be as local as possible but as well they’re interested to try some different herbs or vegetables that you don’t see typically.”

The gardens have also served as an educational opportunity for staff as they often take responsibility for caring for the garden. Harding says that in the summer one of the cooks will weed for about two hours every morning then another takes over for an hour in the evening.

“It’s definitely the kitchen’s baby” he adds. “It just makes it that much better for us because then we’re part of the whole process from start to finish.”

Because of the relatively small garden sizes and short unpredictable growing season however all four restaurants admit that the gardens only help to supplement their menus.

“Me saying that we supply the entire restaurant with under an acre of land would just be a big lie” jokes Harling.

While most of them feature their harvested vegetables and herbs as part of daily specials or tasting courses Market is the one exception using the herbs and microgreens from its Urban Cultivator on its regular menu items.

Though not a self-sustaining venture — Salopek estimates that the restaurant saves about $100 weekly — the chefs hope that their hyperlocal produce will influence people to eat more locally and seasonally.

“People should grow food everywhere” says Maclean. “Challenge the means of production because it influences the food we eat. Eat seasonally. It’s not that hard.”

This approach could become a lot more common in the community as chefs graduate from SAIT’s professional cooking program where the Jackson Henry Henuset Memorial Culinary Garden grows fresh produce and is used as a classroom to connect students with sustainable agriculture.