Like a lot of farmers, Lee Jones grows fresh produce for chefs. In fact, almost all of the fruits, vegetables and herbs grown on his 300-acre farm in Huron, Ohio, are shipped straight to restaurant kitchens.
At the farm, aptly named The Chef's Garden, growing for culinarians is the sole focus — the farm even has an in-house research and development team that partners with chefs to grow innovative varieties and bring back heirloom vegetables. All of the produce is hand-harvested, picked to order and delivered daily to restaurants across the nation. It's a farm equivalent of Amazon for chefs.
"Often there is less than 24 hours between the time a chef orders an item and the time that item is in their kitchen to be placed on a plate," Jones says.
Although The Chef's Garden is hailed as the premier source of fresh produce for restaurant kitchens, Jones never planned to build his farm around the needs of chefs.His business started as a commercial farming operation. In the 1980s, when a hail storm damaged crops and interest rates were at an all-time high, the Jones family lost the farm.
To rebuild, they started growing on a small scale and selling vegetables at local farmers' markets. During one of those markets, they met a chef looking for squash blossoms, which the farm did not grow. The conversation led to the realization that focusing on a niche market and growing high quality, specialty items for chefs could rebuild the farm.
"[We decided] growing for the chef would be our new calling," Jones recalls.
Since then, Jones has shipped produce to the top chefs in the nation. Produce grown at The Chef's Garden has been served at award-winning, Zagat-rated restaurants, including Daniel and Eleven Madison Park in New York, Kia Restaurant at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa in Arizona and Salt at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island, Florida.
The 300-acre sustainable farm has about 100 acres in production per season; the balance of the land is left fallow and planted with cover crops to restore vital nutrients and rebuild the soil. Despite limiting production to one-third of the farm, Jones grows more than 600 varieties of fresh produce.
"We are hyper-focused on growing methods that are centered on quality, not quantity," says Jones. "Every item we sell is grown for the best possible flavor."
The Chef's Garden is also focused on creativity. In addition to fruits, vegetables and herbs, the farm grows edible flowers and micro grains like gold barley, oats, winter wheat and buckwheat. And, to capitalize on the popularity of foraging, one of the greenhouses is filled with edible "weeds" like dandelion, chickweed, purslane, sorrel and yarrow.
"Since the farm's early days, we have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship of chef and farmer working together," says Jones. "We continue to learn from the most forward-thinking chefs in the world. They have taught us that each stage of a plant’s growth offers something different on the plate."
While local agriculture is a major trend, Jones doesn't limit himself to growing traditional Ohio fruits, vegetables and herbs. Instead, he sources items from around the world, honors requests to grow international varieties that are not readily available in the United States and even grows vegetables from seeds chefs bring him to experiment with. It's the chef-centered focus that has earned Jones — and the farm — a reputation for quality, consistency and creativity.
"We look at our products through the eyes of artisans," explains Jones. "If a chef wants a specific product, we will grow it. We are truly The Chef's Garden."
Teaching chefs about the farm
To strengthen their partnerships with chefs (and boost farm business), The Chef's Garden launched the Culinary Vegetable Institute (CVI), a farm-based learning center where chefs can experiment with new vegetable varieties and cooking techniques, schedule menu planning retreats or team building events and train staff.
Jones credits his father, Bob Jones Sr., with the idea to take the collaboration between farmer and chef to the next level. His goal: Provide a place where growers and culinarians could come together outside the restaurant setting for inspiration.
CVI features a 1,500 square foot state-of-the-art kitchen with the capabilities to film and record demonstrations, a dining room that seats 90 and an experimental vegetable, forest and herb garden.
The space also hosts farm-to-table dinners, educational classes and the annual Roots Conference, which highlights culinary issues and trends. Jones believes the "fresh, innovative" approach stresses the importance of engagement and education among culinarians.
"I believe it is important [for farmers and chefs] to look beyond the local market concept, which can be limiting," Jones says. "We need to see the potential [in the food system] that the rest of the world does."
Editor’s note: The writer learned about these groups while attending the annual Roots Conference in 2015 at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Ohio. She attended on a press pass, meaning all of her trip expenses were paid for by The Chef’s Garden. The conference pulled together farmers, food scientists and the media to discuss how to shape the direction of food production.