Celebrating Farm-to-Table: A Day With Celebrity Chef Jose Garces in His Organic Garden

chef jose Garces tomatillos peppers on grill

Chef Jose Garces peppers onion on grill

By Rebecca L. Rhoades

A tantalizing aroma of onions, jalapenos and tomatillos rises from the grill as chef Jose Garces gets ready to prepare his special salsa verde.

“We’re going to do a little cooking today,” he says. “I want to show you some of the things you can make quickly and easily with fresh-from-the-garden vegetables.”

We’re standing in the luxe outdoor kitchen on the back patio of his home, Luna Farm, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Situated about an hour north of Philadelphia, the circa-1833 farm isn’t just a retreat for his family, but also a means to bring the freshest organic edibles to the dishes offered at his East Coast restaurants.

Chef Jose Garces at Luna Farm

“From the grind of the city and all the restaurants, Luna Farm gives me a nice place to relax,” says Garces, one of Philadelphia’s, if not the country’s, most celebrated chefs. In addition to his seven ethnically diverse Philly establishments””ranging from Andalusian tapas, to Peruvian Latin-Asian fare, to gourmet burgers, to farm-fresh artisanal American food””as well as the city’s popular Guapos Tacos truck, Garces also operates eateries in Atlantic City, New Jersey; Scottsdale, Arizona; Palm Springs, California; and Chicago. In May 2009, he received the coveted James Beard award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, and later that year, he took home the title of Iron Chef on season two of the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef.

But Luna Farm is much more than simply a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of running a food empire.

“It fit the criteria,” he says. “And that criteria was a place where [the family] could retreat, but also a place where I could have a farm.”

Farm-to-table may be a popular food-industry buzzword, but for a discerning chef like Garces, owning a farm is more than an industry status symbol. It gives him the ability to personally oversee what products are going into his culinary creations.

“I think that I enjoy challenges, and this seemed like a great challenge for me,” says Garces. “There was something that clicked in me, in terms of being able to control the vegetables that I grow. I said to myself, wouldn’t it be amazing to grow my own food, to nurture the food, to nurture the crops, to make sure that they come out great. I’m now growing all of the ingredients I’ve loved to cook with for the last 20 years. There are different heirloom vegetables. We’re making honey. We’re growing mushrooms. And passing along what we’re doing here to our customers has always been the goal.”

Just a few hours earlier, I got an up-close look at the operation as Garces took me on a tour through the gardens, which comprise 10 of the property’s 40 acres and which marked their first full year of production in 2012.

Garces herb garden

To help ensure the farm’s success, Garces hired successful and well-known Bucks County organic farmer Alex McCracken to serve as farm manager. McCracken and his small staff of paid employees and volunteers plant and harvest more than 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables. There’s tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, zucchini, cucumbers, chard, radishes, beets, carrots, haricot vert, fava beans, cantaloupe, strawberries, watermelon, squash, parsley, leeks, cilantro, rosemary, basil, and oregano, to name a few. Seventy-five Rhode Island red and barred-rock hens provide eggs daily, and two apiaries of honeybees produce about 100 gallons of honey.

In its first year, the farm produced one thousand pounds of produce weekly””about 25 percent of the total amount used in Garces’ Philadelphia and New Jersey restaurants. He hopes that someday soon it will become the main source for some ingredients, such as microgreens. And everything is fresh, organic, and sustainably grown.

No chemical insecticides or fungicides are used; neem oil keeps insects at bay. Rainwater is captured for irrigation. Fryer oil from Garces’ restaurants is recycled into biodiesel and used to power the farm’s tractor. Even the honeybees offer natural pollination for the crops. It’s all part of Garces’ desire to offer his customers the best ingredients in the best dishes.

Garces mini tomatoes in hand

As we wander through the rows of fresh greens, Garces reaches down and plucks off some fresh Sun Gold tomatoes and offers them to me. The small orange varietal of cherry tomato burst with a delectable sweetness. “These are doing well, and the restaurants are using them like crazy,” he says.

Earlier that morning, a group of children from inner-city Philadelphia had toured the farm. “They tore through these [tomatoes],” says Garces. “They were so excited about eating something right off the vine.

“That’s why I started the foundation,” he adds. “I want to help children understand where their food comes from.”

In late 2012, Garces and his wife Beatriz, a dentist, started the eponymous Garces Family Foundation, which is geared toward helping the underserved immigrant community in Philadelphia. Partnering with Puentes de Salud, an organization formed by volunteer doctors that offers medical and dental care to uninsured immigrants, the foundation will provide nutrition and health education and outreach to poor and immigrant children throughout the Philadelphia region.

“The group that was just out here was from the Urban Nutrition Initiative,” says Garces. “They take inner-city kids and teach them about nutrition and health. So we had the kids out here for a field trip. It was our first one where we entertained kids and got to really interact with them. They went out in the field and picked some vegetables. We got to talk about the vegetables, and then they came back here and I did a few demonstrations for them. We all tried the things they picked. It was a great day.”

And then just like with the kids, Garces then proceeds to demonstrate his cooking skills for me.

Garces squeezing limes

“Salsa verde is a Mexican condiment, and this is my version of the original recipe. It’s what I’ve learned from other Mexican cooks throughout the year,” he says, as he blends the grilled jalapenos, onions and tomatillos together with some fresh cilantro, fresh-squeezed lime juice and a pinch of Himalayan fine-grain salt. “It’s mainly like a sauce, and it’s very versatile. It’s great for tacos, meat, pork, fish, just about anything,” he adds. “If you char it, it’s more meat-friendly. If you blanche it, keep it fresh, it’s better for fish. Some chefs add a little honey. You can put avocado in there and make it richer, smoother, creamier. You can take the jalapeno down and use it as a sauce for chicken. At Distrito, we serve it with our chips and with different specialty tacos.”

He takes a spoonful of the finished sauce. “Oh, you gotta try this!” he says. “It will be perfect for the tacos tonight.”

I dip my spoon and take a taste. The piquant salsa is zesty and savory, with a heat that is powerful but not overwhelming. The fresh lime adds a slight tang. I secretly wish I could bottle it and take it home.

Just then, a large bulldog wanders out to the porch and flops at my feet.

“That’s Luna,” says Garces.

I ask if the farm is named after her.

“Well, there are some great moons that we’ve seen out here, full of bright yellows and crimsons,” he says. “So it was a little bit of both. She’s a great dog.”

And as he leans down to give her a pat, his love for both his dog and the farm shines through. “It’s almost spiritual for me to cook with fresh ingredients picked right out of the garden,” he says. “Luna Farm is a great source of inspiration for me.”

To learn more about Jose Garces’ commitment to sustainable agriculture or for information about The Garces Family Foundation, visit garcesfamilyfoundation.org.

RhoadesAbout the Writer

Rebecca L. Rhoades is a writer and photographer with a passion for exploring the world and its cultures. After living and working as a medical editor for many years in New York City, she found a new life in Philadelphia and her calling as an editor of a travel magazine. When not working, she enjoys sleeping late, discovering great restaurants, and searching for the perfect margarita. Follow her on twitter @rlrhoades

 

Photos by Rebecca L. Rhoades

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