By Brandon Hernández
Photos by Brevin Blach
For many chefs, the dream of having on-site gardens from which to harvest fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables for their signature dishes is dashed by lack of space. Most of the room at restaurants is gobbled up by tables, booths and kitchen equipment, making home-grown produce a tall order.
These days, some San Diego chefs and restaurateurs are finding a solution in vertical gardens, customized hydroponic systems that require no soil and circulate water and nutrients through a series of pipes. The plants grow upward versus outward, making them perfect for tight spaces. The systems provide sustainable edibles that are more nutritious and costeffective than ingredients grown in traditional gardens or trucked in from across the state or country.
Jsix executive chef Christian Graves says growing vertical was a matter of convenience. His herb garden on the roof of downtown's Hotel Solamar, where Jsix is located, is a flourishing example of what an on-site garden can be.
"We are in a constant fight to make everything taste better," Graves says. "Herbs that are cut fresh are still packed with their oils, unlike those that sit in a warehouse for a day or two."
Thrilled with the restaurant's rooftop garden, Graves is in the process of installing a similar one at his house and is hyping the trend to his culinary industry colleagues. One of those buds, Paul McCabe, executive chef at L'Auberge Del Mar's Kitchen 1540, just finished installing two eight-foot-tall gardens between cabanas in the restaurant's lush, outdoor dining area. To do so, he had to uproot a beloved persimmon tree, but counts that as a "worthy sacrifice."
"The vertical garden uses 80 percent less water and 80 percent less space than a normal garden," McCabe says. "We're going to have 160 plants-anything we want. I'm especially excited about this one herb that we're putting in. It looks kind of like a kaffir lime leaf, but tastes exactly like an oyster. Every restaurant in town finishes their dishes with the same finishing herbs, but by growing our own, we'll be able to separate our flavor profile."
Vertical gardens aren't just for big-ticket venues. Churchill's Pub and Grille in San Marcos was one of the first spots in the county to jump aboard the blossoming trend. Owner Ivan Derezin saw it as a way to get his hands on obscure ingredients that are often tough to find on the open market.
"We are growing a bunch of heirloom fruits and vegetables, as well as rare, obnoxiously hot peppers," Derezin says. "Doing planter boxes or another hydroponic system would take up too much room and interrupt the flow of my business deliveries. Vertical gardens offer an advanced growing system that doesn't need very much real estate. I can also move it around as the seasons change, and hydroponics tend to grow faster, cleaner and bigger."
Other local eateries with vertical gardens include Spread in North Park, Lockwood Table in Solana Beach and Le Papagayo in Encinitas.