With a background in science and math—he graduated with a computer information systems and business administration degree and worked in technology for a while—it is only fitting that Chef Leonard Hollander of Arbor restaurant in Chicago would find his niche in horticulture and its gastronomic connections. After about 13 years in the restaurant industry, he and co-owner Chad Little set up their own dynamic neighborhood spot with an adjoining urban farm. We asked Hollander about the third-acre farm/garden, what he’s growing and—subsequently—cooking, and his advice on selling fringe menu ingredients to customers.
Is it a farm or a garden?
Maybe a really big garden? It’s almost like an urban farm, because we grow a lot of stuff. Our total growing space is about a third of an acre, but, our first year, we were at like 1,500 pounds of tomatoes. The production levels are kind of crazy.
We grow things that are either expensive, difficult to transport, or just weird and don’t have enough of a market for farmers to grow. Last year we had about 71 varieties.
We’ll go to the local conservatories and talk to them as a resource sometimes on what we can grow that we’re not currently growing, or just walk around there and see what’s cool and then dig into Wikipedia and see if its edible and if we can grow it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
What percent of the produce your restaurant uses is grown in your garden?
During season, probably about 35 percent. Since we focus on things that are smaller instead of robust, we won’t grow things like cabbage and cauliflower and stuff like that. It’s more tomatoes and other precious things. When it comes to the dinner service, a higher percentage of the produce is grown in the garden, because that’s more of a higher ticket and a higher execution service with a constantly changing menu, whereas the daytime menus change more seasonally.
And the building you’re in, is it residential?
It’s actually only commercial space. There are coworking spaces, design firms, a gym, and a really big logistics firm that is the anchor. That firm is about 85 percent of the number of people in the building [about 12,000 total] in the top couple of floors. And they are a really hip-culture, young logistics group that’s heavy in technology and drinks a bunch of coffee, Monsters, and Red Bulls.
The garden was part of the lease. The concept, at least the farm integration, was very much contingent upon the space. There are some really cool systems built into the building overall that help to facilitate us having a more sustainable restaurant system, like the water is provided for free, because we use all the by catch from the building.
Can you share some examples of plants you’re growing?
Right now, I’m really in love with scarlet frill mustard. It’s this beautiful, tiny little individual leaf mustard that’s really, really strongly flavored, and it’s just super unique, incredibly expensive to purchase, and not very available. We’ve had such great luck with it in the soil that our farmer sources.
The other thing that I really like about having the garden. It’s not only that the things we grow are really unique, it’s also that we can catch things at every stage. So, the flavor of cilantro at its first little sprout phase is different than at full, flower, and seed. Particularly green coriander berries and green fennel. Once fennel just forms the seed, and the seed is still fresh and kind of juicy, we go through and harvest all of those and I’ll juice them and paint it over a scallop as it comes out of the pan: beautiful, subtle little things like that.
What’s one of your favorite dishes using garden-grown produce?
Growing sunchokes [or Jerusalem artichokes, a species of sunflower,] allows us to leave them in the ground over winter. It converts this prebiotic fiber into a different type of sugar, and, thus, the sunchokes are a little less intense on your gastric system. We’re able to do funky little things like that. Sunchokes have been really cool one, because we use the sunchoke as its own root, we use the sunflower petals, sprouts, seeds, and oil. We use every part of the plant when making this dish. We’ll treat it a few different ways, and we’ve been serving it lately with cheeks of skate wing. A skate is like a manta ray; it’s a winged fish. I just discovered that the cheeks were available to us. They’re about the size of a scallop, but they have a different texture. So we just sear those and serve that with all the different components of sunflower.
You have a farmer, you mentioned. Is anyone else helping to maintain the plants?
Harvesting is part of prep. We have people from the restaurant contribute when they have opportunity. Whoever has the time—is caught up on their prep—will take 15 to 20 minutes and go out and trim stuff for everybody. I also try to encourage people to take a few minutes in the garden to see what they’re excited about and if they have any contributions for the menu for the week. We use it kind of as an inspiration point.
Do you have any advice for other chefs looking to set up their own urban farms/gardens?
Make sure you vet the person you’re getting your soil from, if it’s not already there. Your project is only going to be as good as your soil. Last year we got some soil that was kind of bunk, and it was really reflective in crop, certainly in the later part of the season. In years prior, we used a lot of our own compost and saw a surge in the later part of the year. We found last year that some of our stuff was just fading, and we attributed that to the new soil that we just purchased. Having high quality compost is really what has produced the best results for us. What’s important is to identify an expert in that specific area and ask and employ them to help, because you don’t get a second run of soil until the next year.
How do you get patrons on board with your not-as-well-known garden ingredients?
When we have time at dinner, we like to take people out to the garden during season and actually let them walk through and taste every single thing that they’re interested in. We also work the garden ingredients into a lot of cocktails.
Usually, with a lot of first-time stuff, I like to work in the realm of familiarity where people have a grasp point. Whether its making ranch dressing with ramp tops, or using scarlet mustard for a garnish for a pretzel, it’s something where people have a relation point, where it’s not scary for them. I don’t cook super weird food just for the sake of it. That’s not really my style. I think some of my dishes might conceptually be out there, but I think there’s always a story and there’s always a reason for things coming together. There’s always a relation point.