Ohio is not the first place that would have come to my mind when thinking about sourcing a wide variety of top quality vegetables, herbs and flowers, but it is the home of what may very well be the finest grower and purveyor of such products in the country. The Chef’s Garden, run by the Jones Family in Huron, Ohio, on the banks of Lake Erie, not far from Cleveland, is an incredible story of a phoenix of a farm that rose from the ashes of the notorious farm credit crunch of the late 70’s and early 80’s to reinvent itself to provide a service to an industry that was just starting to come into its own in this country in the early 80’s.
The Jones family, led by Bob Jones, Sr. had been farming conventionally and doing a pretty good job of it, but due to bad weather and other circumstances, ran into financial difficulties that ultimately led to foreclosure and dissolution. They managed to hold onto a small piece of property and continued to grow produce, but on a much smaller scale than previously. At this point, their market became the local farmers market, selling a narrow variety of products. At one point, a local chef asked them if they had any zucchini flowers and shortly after started providing her with them, despite odd looks from their fellow farmers. Soon, other requests followed and they began to build up a clientele of local chefs and even came to the attention of a legendary chef from as far away as Washington, DC. Jean-Louis Palladin discovered them and started having the Jones family grow specific items for him for his restaurant at the Watergate Hotel. Palladin introduced the Jones’ to a young chef from Chicago, who was beginning to make a name for himself. Once Charlie Trotter started buying from the Jones family, the nature of the business led to the family having to make some tough decisions regarding the direction that their business should take. Growing the vegetables and herbs for the chefs was a lot of work, but ultimately, that was the way they felt that they should go and they haven’t looked back.
The business has flourished ever since, as using sustainable methods and advanced modern technology, they have taken to growing an incredible variety of herbs, vegetables and edible flowers for top chefs all over the country. While not certified organic, the Jones family takes great care to use tried and true methods without synthetic pesticides to produce wholesome, nutrient rich and flavor packed products that they take great pains to sell at their peak. They choose good traditional seed stock and figure out the best ways to germinate those seeds and grow and harvest the plants.
They also care about their workers and take pains to pay them fair wages and protect their health and well-being. One example is the system of flat beds on pulleys for workers to lie on while picking certain crops rather than constantly bending over.
A tour of the farm was enlightening. Even though there was still snow on the ground in Mid-March, the incredible variety of products growing in their extensive greenhouses was astounding. Tasting amongst this variety was even more so. From a selection of different kinds of basil to fresh favas right off the stalk to crisp, beautiful radishes to multi-hued carrots and much, much more, it was east to see how American restaurant plates have become more and more beautiful over the years. The Jones family has a lot to do with it.
The family feels that it is very important to give back to the industry that has built their success. One great way that they do is through their Culinary Vegetable Institute, where they host a variety of taste and educational programs for chefs in a state of the art kitchen and a lovely dining room. They also administer a not-for-profit program called Veggie U. designed to offer outreach programs to teach children and others about growing vegetables and the importance of good, healthy food.
By the end of the weekend I was impressed enough that I ordered and bought a six month home delivery subscription to their produce.
Please click here to see the full Flick’r Photoset of my tour of the Chefs Garden led by Farmer Lee Jones and accompanied by a number of the chefs present to cook at the Bocue d’Or USA benefit to be held that same night at the associated non-profit Culinary Vegetable Institute. A full report on that fabulous dinner will follow.