For a story about the gardens Sara Gasbarra (near rose-scented geraniums) has tended for different restaurants during the growing season, including this one at Floriole Cafe and Bakery, photographed on Friday, September 14, 2012 in Chicago. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times
Updated: September 26, 2012 8:59AM
Notice a hint of green peeking out from a restaurant roof, even as fall creeps into Chicago?
It might be a garden. Over the past few years, restaurants all over Chicago have started growing their own food in an attempt to take the local food craze to the next level with distances measured in feet, not miles. Unfortunately, many chefs discover that consistent gardening takes work, specialized skills, and above all, time, of which they have precious little.
Enter Sara Gasbarra, owner of Verdura, a business that creates and maintains custom gardens for some of Chicago’s best restaurants.
Creating restaurant gardens might sound
like a cushy job, but this isn’t your backyard lettuce patch or ornamental flower box. These gardens are on rooftops, up ladders, in parking lots and on balconies. They have to produce reliably even during bad weather, prove useful to the chefs who are paying for them and (ideally) turn a profit for Gasbarra. I spent a day visiting her gardens to learn how she does it and why chefs and restaurants should bother growing their own food.
Our morning began in the South Loop at Chef Ryan McCaskey’s acclaimed Acadia. A typical diner would have no idea that Acadia has a garden — the empty lot next door certainly isn’t growing any food. But venture into the back parking lot, and there’s a vibrant little patch of green and purple.
“I wish this was prettier,” lamented Gasbarra, picking up microscopic bits of junk from around the beds. “I’m such a neat freak. But this is part of urban farming, so you make do.” For all of her complaints, the small garden looks like it belongs in a magazine. Herbs, greens and edible flowers are so full and brightly colored, you’d expect them to be in a greenhouse, not in small boxes perched on the side of a concrete lot.
These gardens aren’t for show — most restaurants don’t let customers near them. “A lot of restaurants think at first that they want huge, beautiful, raised cedar beds,” explained Gasbarra. “But on a roof, each one of those weighs 10,000 pounds! So I use Earth Boxes.” The green plastic boxes, combined with her custom-built irrigation system, keep plants beautiful and fresh even in the hottest weather.
Gasbarra has been gardening all of her life, but she never thought of turning it into a career until a few years ago. “I really didn’t like my job,” she recalled with a laugh. “Even my parents were telling me to quit with nothing lined up! When your parents are telling you to quit, it must be bad.”
She started at Green City Market as a volunteer. “I have always loved food and restaurants, but I really got into it because of the market. That’s how I got connected with chefs and restaurants.”
It’s also how she got her first clients. She formally launched Verdura in July of last year. Now, she runs five restaurant gardens and consults on special projects, such as a lavender wall at Nellcote.
What to grow
Restaurant gardens can’t produce like a full-scale farm. For a small space like Acadia’s back lot, it makes more sense to grow herbs and edible flowers than vegetables. Part of Gasbarra’s business is customization, and each garden is created in consultation with the chef. Here, McCaskey and Gasbarra chose herbs, such as lovage and sorrel, not readily available at farmers’ markets, and flowers, like nasturtium and borage, that can be used to make plates look fresh and beautiful. McCaskey uses the herbs and flowers almost every day. “The nasturtium flowers are on a lot of our dishes. The bar uses a lot of the mint, and we get the biggest use out of the basil — there are three different kinds, and we have an heirloom tomato salad with all three kinds of the fresh basil.”
After Gasbarra checks her watering system and makes sure everything is healthy, we head to our next destination — her biggest project, on the rooftop of the Chicago Hilton. The Willis Tower looms in the distance and a huge ventilator roars, but despite the manmade setting, the roof is covered with greenery. It houses an 84-box operation that is more farm than garden. There are three kinds of cherry tomatoes, a trio of pepper types, radishes, greens and more herbs than I have ever seen in one place.
At Farmhouse in River North, Gasbarra heads through the restaurant to an upstairs back office and out the door. The garden is on the next roof up, so up a ladder we climb to the sun-baked top of the building. “I had to use a pulley system to get the plants up,” said Gasbarra before I can complain about the climb.
Here, box after box is filled with arugula, since the restaurant wanted to produce an amount usable for more than just garnishes. Chef Eric Mansavage climbs up after us and picks cherry tomatoes.
At Floriole Cafe and Bakery in Lincoln Park, the garden is on a sunny back porch. Gasbarra is growing four kinds of mint and rose-scented geranium, which owner Sandra Holl infuses into pastry creme. “It’s really nice to have fresh herbs at your fingertips,” said Holl. “No matter how much you order, you always run out, and it’s great to be able to run upstairs and cut them fresh.”
If gardens can’t produce enough to substantially lower a restaurant’s food cost, what’s the point? McCaskey explained: “Yesterday, we were short on thyme, and I said to the guys, ‘Remember, we have a garden! Just go out and cut some!’” It’s also important for McCaskey to train young chefs in the details of where their food comes from, and it’s a great marketing tool. “I like being able to say, ‘These borage flowers on your plate come from the garden in back.’ ”
Holl expressed a similar desire for a connection with her food, despite the cost.
“The fact of the matter is, many of those of us in the food industry aren’t the best business people — you have to be crazy to open a bakery! It’s a labor of love, I’m sort of a dreamer, and I wanted to have access to things growing on my roof, and I was going to make it happen no matter what.”
In addition to the idealism, there are real benefits for a restaurant. A chef can get easy access to unique products that are unavailable elsewhere, and writing “homegrown” on a menu pleases customers.
Clients are already lining up to hire Gasbarra for next year; she’s had great success with social media (if you’re a gardening geek, her Instagram feed is a must-follow) and many of her clients have hired her after seeing photographs of her work.
Someday, she wants to see a city filled with gardens. Everywhere we went, she pointed to rooftops and corners that could be filled with her green boxes. “I would like to see restaurants who don’t have space go looking for empty lots. Drive 15 minutes outside of downtown and there is tons of space.”
If Verdura’s success continues, Gasbarra might just see her vision come true.
Anthony Todd is a locally based free-lance writer.