The History of the Gardens
Shortly after the Roadhouse opened in 2003, our founding chef Alex Young began, as he says, “playing in the garden” as a way to relieve the stress of running a busy restaurant. It began as 75 square feet in his backyard, with fourteen double dug rows filled with leeks, carrots, squash and tomatoes. He began harvesting the rows, bringing the vegetables into the restaurant and preparing specials. Showing a few regular customers sitting at the lunch counter at the Roadhouse what he had made, watching them taste the dishes and hearing their admiration and appreciation, made it even more appealing to keep growing, and to keep learning.
In the years following, Chef Alex continued to spend his time off in the garden, continuously learning, checking out books from the library, visiting bookstores, and practicing what he was reading. He read about how to farm organically, the importance of composting, micro-nutrients, and phosphorus application, just to name a few subjects. He landed on Ed Smith’s book, ‘The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible,’ where he learned about the WORD system – “wide rows, organic methods, raised beds, deep soil” – and that system, which focuses on the health of the plants, helped shape what the gardens are today. Like anyone with a passion, Chef Alex studied, practiced and learned, and his contribution to what the farm has become is now his legacy.
The garden gradually doubled in size, taking on its first full-time employee in 2008, Mark Baerwolf, as manager. Focusing on vegetables from the Slow Food Ark of Taste, the farm grew from 4 different vegetables to over 50. Even as the gardens continue to expand, Mark manages everything from planting to caretaking to harvesting, hand delivering the vegetables daily to Zingerman’s Roadhouse.
Where the Farm is Today
The Roadhouse Farm now sits on 4 acres of land, including a carefully maintained hoop house. The production gardens, farmed year-round, are home to over 50 different varieties of crops including heirloom tomatoes, peppers, squash, head lettuces, Swiss chard, carrots, kale, celeriac, and herbs. The Roadhouse has taken farm-to-table to the next level by bringing in produce from its very own farm, in addition to purchasing from local farmers. Because our vegetable planting is effectively coordinated by our chefs, our farm is diligently managed, and the food on our menu is enriched.
Growing for Taste
The Roadhouse Farm focuses on growing vegetables for their taste, not for yield. Many varieties are grown from the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Organic practices further promote soil health and the best possible flavor. This includes harvest timing, which is done when the produce is at its peak ripeness. Mark then delivers the vegetables directly to the Roadhouse, where the produce is used in special menu items. One of the many benefits of operating a farm for a restaurant is that the farmers can plant and grow for optimal taste, not yield. The difference in the care and attention given to the vegetables is evident-you really can taste the difference.
The Importance of Compost
The soil is a crucial part of the quality and nutrient content of the vegetables harvested. Being in Michigan, the soil is very clay-like and wet, requiring lots of careful tillage and timely working. When working with clay soil that is too wet, it compacts and develops a crust, which makes it hard for plants to get what they need to grow. The Roadhouse Farm has developed a compost system to help give the soil better water infiltration, nutrient availability and nutrient storage. When comparing fields that have been receiving compost for years to fields that are more recently opened, the soil fertility is drastically different, and the hard work clearly shows. The compost used at our farm comes from kitchen scraps from Zingerman’s Roadhouse. And since the majority of produce at the Roadhouse comes from our farm, the produce returns to where it was grown, completing the cycle.
When walking the gardens, the crops are not segregated, but planted amongst one another, following a practice of companion planting. Companion planting looks at the big picture, and encourages decisions based upon the specific characteristics of each crop. It can be done intentionally, for example having beds of cabbage alternating with beds of leeks. The leeks have a naturally strong smell, while comparatively cabbage does not but is very attractive to a lot of pests. By interspersing the cabbage and the leeks, the latter can act as a natural insecticide and help deter many of the cabbage pests. This gives the big win of not having to use chemicals to control the pests, but using the crops to work together. Creating a beneficial microclimate, companion planting encourages an ecosystem where all things benefit from one another.
Roadhouse Farm has preserved 4 acres of farmland and has deeply influenced the cooking at our restaurant. It has provided the Roadhouse kitchen with building blocks of flavor, has influenced the style of our menu by making it simpler, shows more respect to the food by making it less complicated, and has allowed enjoyment of the full-flavored characteristics inherent in well cared for, really good produce. While many chefs spend their careers learning how to make bad food taste good, Roadhouse Farm provides our chefs with the amazing, great-tasting ingredients our restaurant highlights and shares with our customers. What began as “playing in the garden” has changed the lives of the farmers, the staff of the Roadhouse and the guests who reap the benefits of what the farmers sow.