The Chef’s Garden tracks everything it grows from soil to soup pot

Bobby Jones, of The Chef ‘s Garden, Inc., is not overly concerned about the pending announcement of standards for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The operation, on its own, is pretty much up to snuff on most of the provisions that industry leaders feel will be in the act.

Lee (left) and Bobby Jones pose in one of their greenhouses. Growing in this greenhouse are sage, oregano and red shiso, which is favored by Japanese restaurants

Specifications for the FSMA are currently under development through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the law will have an impact on all aspects of the fruit, nut and produce industry. However, The Chef’s Garden has already implemented systems to protect the vegetables and microgreens that they send to the nation’s finest restaurant chefs.

Brothers Lee and Bobby Jones have come a long way since the 1980s, when a chef asked them for zucchini blooms – not the vegetables, just the flowers. Back then it was uncommon for a chef to partner with a grower and quite unlikely that a single farm would be mentioned as the source of artisan vegetables.

Today, The Chef’s Garden is an acknowledged pioneer in sustainable agriculture and a national leader in food safety.

When Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA, toured the farm, he was impressed. So was Bobby. “Mike Taylor finally put the horse in front of the cart. He asked what should [the] FDA do? What works?” Bobby says. “They talked to folks before writing a rule rather than writing rules and asking us to comment on them.”

While some growers chafe about the delay in publishing rules, Bobby Jones welcomes it. He hopes the FDA realizes food safety is as important on small family farms as it is to Dole and to consumers. He had a sobering experience when he ate dinner with a woman who lost a son to E. coli. It made him think.

“We have a social responsibility to do food and vegetables responsibly,” he says. “It is very doable.” Neither the FDA nor growers have to reinvent the wheel. “There is no reason why everybody – [the] FDA, growers, consumers – can’t win,” Bobby says.

Gheorge Gureu, microgreens grower, scans information from the latest lots. This gives him a daily record of all inventory.

He notes the devastation of the 2009 tomato recall, which, in the end, had nothing to do with tomatoes, but cost many growers their livelihoods.

“We started doing food safety 20 years ago,” he says. “Small growers need to realize that you can’t do it all overnight. But you can do it even if some farms will have to make major changes.”

One reason they are so fixated on quality and safety, Bobby says, is they know their end customer personally. A corn and beans grower might never leave the county to buy seed, plant, harvest and market his crop, but everyone from grower to salesperson to owner knows where the hundreds of varieties of microgreens and salad toppings produced at the farm eventually go.

Making safety happen

It all starts with basic germination tests on lots of seed that they might obtain from anywhere in the world. An Italian or French chef might want a green that is exactly like the one grown in his hometown. The Chef’s Garden will obtain seed from one of 150 vendors, cross-reference the producer’s product code to their own, and begin the production process with a germination test.

“We have our own food safety program. We do on-farm PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests as well as stick testing,” Bobby says. “All seed and soil are coded by lot.”

“We do our own soil and leaf nutrition testing,” Bobby continues. In fact, they check just about every step of the way. They perform mineral and biological tests on the soil, believing the healthier the soil, the healthier the plant. There are preharvest checks to be sure the plants are safe and healthy. There are postharvest checks. There are final inspections when the greens are in the box (even brown tips will get a lot tossed).

As part of the quality control program, every flat-thyme in this case-is coded and marked. Bobby Jones, with help from a scanner, can tell everything from the seed lot to planting date to harvest date from the tag.

“Our goal is to minimize the risk of microbial contamination,” Bobby says. So far, it is working well. Strong plants and solid soils appear better able to fight microbial disease. Studies from the Ohio Ag Research and Development Corporation (OARDC) confirm that notion.

Farm philosophy

While they built their operation around the needs of top-end chefs, Lee says they make no claim to being an “organic” operation. “The organic certification has been bastardized,” he says, noting that organic used to be something way out of the mainstream that got producers an extra 5 percent margin. One day the corporate giants figured an extra 5 percent would look good on the bottom line. “They co-opted and corrupted it,” Lee says. “Congress relaxed the laws,” he adds with disdain. “We don’t want to lower our standards.”

Rather, Lee says, they strive for a sustainable farm, working in harmony with nature – not trying to outsmart it. “We will not be caught in that trap,” Lee says. “We will use product (pesticides) if needed, but we try to do it the right way.”

The Chef’s Garden takes full advantage of a unique microclimate on the shores of Lake Erie – the shallowest and warmest of the Great Lakes – in Huron, Ohio.

They serve as the “Personal Farmer” to over 1,500 fine-dining chefs worldwide. They provide those establishments with over 600 varieties of vegetables, many of which are unique to The Chef’s Garden.

This is not a boutique operation. The Chef’s Garden is huge (acres-wise and square feet under glass). There are 20 greenhouses, each 30 by 150 feet. The facilities include a quality lab, chilling line, packinghouse and shipping area. It is a year-round operation, growing everything from asparagus to beans, beets, carrots, crucifers, edible flowers, spinach, squash, turnips, peppers and tomatoes. There are 55 kinds of peppers, 20 varieties of eggplant and 15 types of squash produced.

“But not all at once,” Lee laughs. At any given time, there are about 70 acres in production and 70 fallow. The Jones family believes firmly in rejuvenation of the soil with cover crops like clover, vetch, barley and Sudan grass.

This is an operation where the goods are more commonly sold by the ounce than the ton. The goal is to have food move from the farm to the restaurant’s kitchen in 24 hours. Except for the local eateries in nearby cities like Cleveland, everything is shipped FedEx. Produce goes as far away as the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, Lee says.

The chilling line is key. “We want to eliminate spikes in temperature,” Lee explains. “Spikes hurt quality and nutritional value.” They want their produce to be steadily cooled to 38 degrees by the time it gets into the box.

The Chef’s Garden has been featured on national TV shows including “ABC World News,” “CNN Business Unusual,” and “Martha Stewart Living.” It has gathered plenty of ink as well, in the pages of publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Midwest Living and The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The list of picky chefs they serve is huge. Just keep in mind that the customer knows exactly where the produce originated. Nobody wants the wrath of a Martha Stewart or any angry chef coming over the phone lines, or worse, in person. The chefs who buy from The Chef’s Garden regularly show up at the farm. They are encouraged to visit, and each is videotaped in a brief interview about their restaurant, food quality and culinary goals.

Farm history

Much of the design of their machinery and processing and packing lines is homegrown. Lee and Bobby’s father, Bob Jones Sr., could often be found tinkering with an old John Deere tractor, designing modifications that would increase the efficiency of field production. Today, many of those designs are in daily use.

Bob Sr. always wanted to be a vegetable producer. He started working for Charles Nickles at age 14 and now, at age 70, is still active. The number of other farms had slipped from 300 to 65 to a dozen or so. Eventually, Bob Sr. purchased the operation and grew it to 1,200 acres of fresh vegetables. “We’d have 10 or 12 semis of fresh produce leaving daily,” Lee recalls.

Every week, Bob and his sons harvested and packed produce for the Cleveland farmers’ markets. They also sold produce from a stand in the front yard of their farm home.

That ended abruptly when a hailstorm wiped out all of their crops. “I remember the stench of cabbage rotting in the field,” Lee recalls. Still a teenager, Lee watched the entire operation get sold at a sheriff’s sale, since there was no insurance and no way to make up the lost crops. For a while, they limped along selling produce at farmers’ markets.

As they rebuilt, the family made the decision to focus on the needs of chefs. The vote was five to four, with their father’s vote counting as five against everyone else’s four. Bob Sr. said there was more potential with chefs and overrode the rest of the family. For a while, Lee recalls, the chef trade was “2 percent of our business and 80 percent of the aggravation.”

The farm got a much-needed boost when Jean-Louis Dalladin, chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., got on board. The “enfant terrible” of chefs at that time, he believed strongly in quality. “If you want to sell to me you must rethink what you are doing. You cannot grow for the harvester, but for quality,” the late Dalladin told the Jones boys in his heavy French accent.

Dalladin and other culinary leaders like Ed Brown, chef at Ed’s Chowder House and the Chop House in New York City, realized that one or two restaurants could not guarantee success for such a farm. Rather than be selfish and hoard the great resource they had, they spread the word, and The Chef’s Garden flourished.

“A lot of love and a lot of good is done to get this produce to me in New York,” Brown says.

Employees at The Chef’s Garden like Debbie Stacy get to go to the restaurants and follow the artisan vegetables they help produce right to the table. “It was so cool to see what they do and how they prepare it,” Debbie says. She was able to go to Charlie Trotter’s restaurant and was awed by the preparation and presentation of the petite carrots there.

Like most people, she does not frequent five-star restaurants. “Right here at the farm level we are part of his team,” she says. That sums up the reason for the operation’s success.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio.