By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
The displays of Farmer Jones Farm Market and The Chef’s Garden are stocked with an array of colors. Purple carrots, red apples, orange sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables. It’s like a rainbow inside the market, directly across the street from fields of various plants. For most people, produce shopping is simply that: you need a carrot, so you buy a carrot. But Farmer Lee Jones, owner of The Chef’s Garden says that isn’t so.
“Some carrots taste like cardboard, but some carrots taste wonderful and have great texture. We’re always striving to grow the tastiest, most nutritious, sexiest vegetables you’ve ever had,” Jones said.
Chef Jamie Simpson was drawn to The Chef’s Garden for that very reason. Hailing from Charleston, SC, Simpson had studied culinary arts and was working as a chef for a high-end hotel prior to joining the team at The Chef’s Garden.
“Every week I got to open what I referred to as ‘Christmas from the farm,’” Simpson said. “The boxes had vegetables I had never seen before with smells, textures and flavors I had never experienced before. I was very intrigued from the beginning, because interestingly enough, we would treat the produce special. It had its own shelf away from the rest of the produce, because it was more precious.”
Simpson came to be friends with Farmer Lee Jones, one of the owners of The Chef’s Garden in Ohio, and visited the farm in Huron.
“I spent two weeks the first time I came here about 13 years ago,” Simpson said. “I loved the place and the experience. I would visit other well-known restaurants and see they were using their product too. I felt like an ambassador for The Chef’s Garden, being able to connect with chefs and share my experience at the farm with them.”
Simpson kept in touch with Jones and one day an opportunity arose to assist him with the Roots Conference, a large food and beverage conference on the farm. Simpson took him up on the offer, and has stayed ever since. Simpson is the executive chef on staff today for The Chef’s Garden.
Simpson leads culinary innovation for chef customers. The Culinary Vegetable Institute is a place that welcomes global chefs who have an interest in vegetables and how to incorporate them on their menus. Roughly 600 chefs visit annually, hoping to learn more about where their food comes from.
“There’s really no rules when chefs come to the Culinary Vegetable Institute. We may cook meals together, we may walk the gardens and grab interesting ingredients to come back and make various dishes with them,” Simpson said. “If someone’s trying to solve a problem or come to a new conclusion for their concept, we focus on that. Some restaurants want to reduce food costs, some have very specific projects, like finding a lettuce that lasts longer and is denser so you need less when you serve it as a salad. We can help to even curate specific blends or mixes of vegetables for them. It’s a lot easier to come here and to make decisions for produce that fits your plate or your vision than it is to try to figure it out at a farmer’s market or a produce purveyor.”
Simpson is also working on finding uses for vegetables that may not be the most eye-appealing.
“We do a lot of production in terms of waste management. The farm grows so many vegetables, so you would expect a certain amount to be blemished or cosmetically challenged. We’ve worked with different co-packers and manufacturers to create something new with those products,” Simpson said. “We offer veggie-based jams, jellies, marmalades, teas and vinegars, even dog treats. We’ve also developed a root vegetable deli alternative that can be used in sandwiches.”
Finding new ways to merchandise vegetables is another task Chef Jamie tackles. The farm manages thousands of customer offerings but only grows a few hundred varieties of vegetables.
“We harvest vegetables at different stages of growth, because chefs may want certain sized products or wants different parts of the plants for the plate. For example, we offer zucchini in multiple sizes. Our small zucchini are certain lengths, once that grows past that then it’s a new SKU,” Simpson said.
Simpson takes a big lead in research being done with fellow chefs and also with The Chef’s Garden research staff, which includes Amy Sapola, a pharmacist from the Mayo Clinic. Sapola monitors the healthfulness of the vegetables being offered. Sapola hosts regular podcasts and creates curated boxes designed to aid in health issues. These boxes focus on phytonutrients, anti-inflammatory agents, and various vitamins and minerals.
In early 2019 The Chef’s Garden opened a research facility. This facility is constantly monitoring soil health and tissue samples, looking for ways to increase nutrient levels and organic matter through various natural ways, such as cover crops. In addition to studying soil health, the team also studies shelf life and the science of flavor. The team invested in a gas chromatographer, used to analyze the vegetable oil content of the plants for specific nutrients.
Studies from the American Horticultural Society have shown a decrease in nutrient values in produce over the last 50 to 100 years. The percentage of nutrient decrease has been cited anywhere from a median 5% to 40% decrease.
“We are seeing a significant increase over the USDA average in our nutritional values of the produce,” Jones said.
Crop varieties are constantly challenged and tested with the customer in mind. What is grown this year is not guaranteed to be grown next year, depending on crop quality, palatability and customer-approval whether they are chefs from our the country or those just visiting the market to see what is being offered. The Chef’s Garden Market is open every Saturday in Huron and they also offer home delivery. For more, visit: farmerjonesfarm.com