As owners of Ramsi’s Café on the World, a Louisville, Kentucky, dining institution, Rhona and Ramsi Kamar know how to be successful restaurateurs—and now they are farmers as well.
“Back to the landers.” “Born-again farmers.” Whatever term you choose, many chefs and restaurant owners have taken to their shovels and ploughs to be one with the earth, taking the locavore concept one step further to have a more direct hand in the growth and production of the food they serve.
“For me, farming was a childhood dream because we were never able to afford the olive and fig trees many of our neighbors had,” Ramsi says. Buying a 15-acre plot of land outside Louisville 12 years ago helped fulfill that dream.
“Farming has given me a sense of purpose,” he says. “I come from a place where people are more connected to the land, and where the bond with land provides identity. Having soil to work with and a stream of water is a source of life. It has been beyond my wildest imagination to have these things.”
While Rhona runs the daily restaurant operations and develops the menu, Ramsi has turned much of his attention to the farm, tending the fields from early morning until night.
For Rhona, developing their Raising Hope Organic Farm has brought more meaning to her life. But what started as a “selfish” endeavor has turned into something they now do for their children and for their customers. “With the farm-to-table movement, it became apparent to us that this is becoming more important to people, and to our diners,” she says.
Nestled in the heart of Louisville’s hip Highlands neighborhood, Ramsi’s Café on the World is known as a place where there’s “something for everyone.” With 200 seats, they serve a whopping 500 to 700 people a day with an expansive globally-inspired menu that showcases up to 120 scratch-made items, which has earned the restaurant praise for catering to a diverse group of diners from all walks of life.
Expanding their menu to offer more nutritional, healthy dishes and cater to vegans, vegetarians, lactose- and gluten-free diners alike was a natural step.
From a modest planting project three years ago—with the first year spent building the farm’s irrigation and infrastructure and earning USDA organic certification—the Kamars have watched their harvest double in size with a bounty that includes kale and other hearty greens, delicate lettuces, different types of heirloom tomatoes, various vegetables, and a small orchard with blueberries as well as apple, pear, fig, and olive trees. A flock of chickens produces eggs to feed the family and augment the restaurant’s menu, while a small herd of goats is likely in line for a cheese-making experiment.
Rhona estimates 20 percent of the restaurant’s produce comes from their farm, but they plan to grow that number, partially with 20,000 square feet of indoor growing space, which includes a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse and several hoop houses that will extend their season year-round. They supplement their produce and meat supply with product from local and organic sources.
“We bought the land in Jefferson County with the idea that we would build a house on it and we started with a little cabin—but stopped and spent seven years expanding the restaurant instead,” Rhona says. “We didn’t do anything on the land for years, which actually worked to our benefit. By the time we started farming two years ago, the land was perfectly clean, so all the organic certifiers had to do was a quick soil test.”
The Kamars have since developed a composting system as part of their organic farming certification.
Though many of the menu’s Mediterranean-inspired dishes cater to lighter eaters, Rhona developed the “Hope Farm Wellness Menu” after changing her diet a few years ago to include more plant-based, organic, and vegetarian dishes, with less dairy and little to no processed foods. That menu has become an easy place to showcase the produce they grow.
“All the dishes on our wellness menu are dairy-free and gluten-free, with as much organic food used as possible,” she says. “Some dishes are pescatarian-friendly for people who don’t eat dairy but eat fish and eggs.” The wellness menu also includes dishes with ancient whole grains and a selection of raw items, such as cauliflower “couscous” and dates stuffed with homemade cashew “cheese.”
“From day one we have been about 50 percent vegetarian, but we’ve seen that group increase in just the past couple years,” she says.
“Clean” eating has even become part of the restaurant culture: Servers wear “Kale Yeah!” T-shirts and some diners crave the natural taste of the Kamars’ tomatoes so much that a “naked tomatoes” dish—with just a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and touch of sea salt—was added to the menu.
The Kamars have also experimented with growing and serving a variety of “superfoods,” including maca root for a non-caffeinated energy boost and dry goji berries for smoothies, salads, and sauces. And Rhona’s herbalist mother taught her how to grow and harvest ashwagandha, a traditional Indian herb for stress-reducing teas and tinctures.
“Down the road, our goal is to have a processing facility on the farm with a commercial kitchen so we can make and sell health-food products,” Rhona says.
“As a chef, the ability to be involved in the entire life cycle of the food-making process is a dream come true,” she concludes.