From garden to table



Asa Ransom House owner Bob Lenz is committed to green.

photos by kc kratt

Garlic scapes are one of seventy types of plants—mainly herbs—grown in the ARH garden.

ASA RANSOM HOUSE: A world of green

For most restaurants that promote garden-to-table dining, the words connote a concept, a commitment to use local produce to generate seasonal menus. At the Asa Ransom House in Clarence, it’s even more than that. Thirty-three years ago, innkeeper Robert Lenz had the foresight to plant an organic herb garden on the historic grounds, and those herbs have found their way into the award-winning cuisine at the restaurant ever since.

Asa Ransom chefs visit the garden—a masterpiece that encompasses the entire West Lawn and is an annual Garden Walk point of pride—daily during the growing season, filling the menu requirements from among more than seventy herbs that grow in the 1,250-square-foot space. The beds boast not only the usual suspects—chives, sage, oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram, parsley, and sage—but many of their more exotic cousins, including golden feverfew, lavender, anise, and burnet. There are also aromatic and medicinal herbs, Tiny Tim tomatoes and strawberries. Grapevines and currant bushes are nearby.

When he first installed the garden, Lenz couldn’t possibly have known where the local food movement would be more than three decades later, but he wasn’t doing it to be trendy. “Green” has been in his blood since he started in the restaurant business and, to him, historic doesn’t have to mean “behind the times.”

“It’s just my belief that we should take better care of our environment,” Lenz says, who tends to the garden himself, and is also an avid rail advocate. “When I operated the Red Mill Inn from ’67 to ’74, we were the first in Western New York to have a non-smoking room. I used to take all the glass bottles into Amherst because that was the only place that was collecting them. It goes back that far.”

When he took over the Asa Ransom House in 1975, Lenz brought his environmental concerns with him—one of his first moves was making all the guest rooms non-smoking—but it was joining the Green Hotels Association in 2005 that prompted him to take a closer look at the food side of the business. “We buy local whenever we can,” he notes, “and we’re always after our purveyors: ‘Don’t send us Washington apples if you can send us New York apples.’ It just doesn’t make sense.”

Lenz now belongs to Pride of New York, the state “buy local, use local” advocacy group, and as a board member of the Clarence Hollow Association, Lenz was part of the start-up crew for the Clarence Farmer’s Market, which generated more interest in local produce throughout town. “We lined up local farmers and local wine people,” he says. “I’ve been promoting New York wines since Red Mill. We have forty New York wines on our list, and most restaurants don’t even have one.”

With a “local” mindset, Lenz also modified the menu while still keeping his customer favorites. “Popularity is important but sometimes we can have the same items, but with different ingredients,” he says. “If we have Shepherd’s Pie, we can use local garden vegetables. We usually have a chicken dish with spinach, garlic, and tomatoes and all three are local. We’ve been actively looking for an organic chicken vendor around the state, but nobody has the volume we need.”

Recently, Lenz hired a new chef and was intent on choosing one who shared his beliefs and is knowledgeable about local produce and herbs. And the Asa’s formerly meat-intensive menu now boasts an organic salad of the day, as well three vegetarian entrees. Says Lenz, “Customers are telling us that’s what they want. Keeping up with the whole green issue has kept the work interesting and challenging, and it’s the right thing to do.”

 

Perennials, vines, vegetables, and berry bushes co-exist in a garden created from an empty lot.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: Portrait of a community garden

What do you do when you live next door to a run-down vacant double lot that’s home to cobblestone rubble and a sunken, rotting playground that’s far more dangerous than useful? You could put up a big stockade fence so you don’t have to look at it or you could take a page from Justin and Lily Booth’s book and start planting.

“When we first moved here, we would look out our window and there would be [loiterers] waiting there; it was a good place for people to hide because it was a dark little corner,” says Lily who, along with husband Justin, owns half of the West Village lot; the other half is a city-owned park. “Sometimes kids would hang out and throw or kick a ball around, which we didn’t like because of our windows. We gave the kids Wiffle balls and bats, but then we had the city tear out the playground [equipment].”

The Booths hoped that the city would build a new playground, but when that hope evaporated, they offered to buy the lot which, in an exasperating Catch-22, they couldn’t do because it was identified as a park. “Rather frustrated that we were providing the maintenance to a lot that the city was unwilling to sell, especially when the city has an abundance of them, I discovered Grassroots Gardens [www.grassrootsgardens.org],” says Justin. “We approached this organization, which provides lease agreements for neighborhood organizations to garden city-owned vacant lots and indemnify the land.”

With assistance from Grassroots, the Booths were able to procure resources for much of the upfront costs of creating raised beds, providing soil amendments, compost, mulch, plant materials, and more. In fact, Justin was so impressed with Grassroots that he is now a board member who has nurtured a relationship between Grassroots and Re-Tree WNY to provide shade and fruit trees for vacant lots throughout the city.

Fifteen of those trees are now part of the organic community garden that occupies the former eyesore outside the Booths’ window. There are also blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries, as well as vegetables: garlic, onions, chives, celeriac root, potatoes, zucchini, beets, Swiss chard, purple string beans, purple cabbage, broccoli, several lettuce varieties, arugula, and heirloom tomatoes. Perennial flowers adorn the reclaimed stone slate path that runs through the free-form greenery.

Though the Booths do much of the garden tending, it is truly a community effort. Neighborhood children from age seven up through middle school come to help dig, weed, and plant. “We give them broccoli to take home, or cherries straight off the tree. It nearly all gets harvested; we offer it to whoever comes by and the children will take home a handful of this or an armful of that,” says Lily, who’s quick to point out that nobody is required to help to enjoy the bounty.

And indeed, many children just come to play. “Once,” Lily laughs, “we had six cubic yards of compost manure, and the kids were digging holes in it, building a fort, and having so much fun until my husband finally told them what they were playing in!” In the summer, the kids bring blankets to sit on and, if the weather’s nice, the Booths may put a Slip ‘N’ Slide out with the sprinkler.

Adults in the neighborhood have also come to appreciate the green space, often bringing out a table and chairs from their apartment to sit and play dominos or checkers, or watch their children play. Though most of the parents don’t speak English, they relay through their children how beautiful the gardens are, and how much they appreciate them.

But the garden’s benefits go far beyond providing food and a safe and (usually) clean place to play: The kids are learning. “Most of them didn’t know where vegetables came from, so they’ve gotten a real kick out of it,” Lily says. “We had these two kids this past summer, about six or seven, and they were pretty amazed to find out about apples. They thought it was the coolest thing that they just grow and grow and get bigger on those trees.”

The children are also learning about responsibility and ownership. “They can go in there any time, but they’re playing; they’re not destructive,” Lily says. “If they bring other children in, you see them pointing things out and showing them what’s what, or talking about the experience they had. They’ve taken hold of it; it’s a sense of pride for them and they protect it.”

As parents—they have three girls—and garden lovers, the Booths couldn’t be happier with the both the literal and figurative fruits of their labor. “We’re ridiculous with gardens,” says Lily, who notes they also have a courtyard garden in their backyard. “The kids will go to my parents’ place in Canada and we’ll spend from ten to ten gardening; this is what we do together. We’ve always had little gardens here and there but nothing as extensive as this. This is what we do for fun.”

 

Jake Brach shows off the produce he grows on his Clarence farm.

Raised beds are often the easiest way to grow vegetables successfully.

JAKE BRACH: The sustainable chef

At fourteen, Jacob Brach became a dishwasher at his uncle’s restaurant, the Torch House; since then, he’s worked his way through every job in the hospitality field from liquor store owner to chef. Though many positions were a result of happenstance, one might say he landed his current gig at Rich Products through a touch of divine intervention. Between jobs in 2001, Brach applied to Rich as a Regional Culinary Manager, but was told he wasn’t quite what they were looking for. Meanwhile, a nun at his son’s school asked her student how his dad’s job search was going. Turns out the nun had a connection at Rich, the connection got Brach the interview, and the interview got Brach the job.

“Things happen over the course of your career that can’t be planned,” says Brach, who was recently named Rich’s Culinarian for Commercial Chain Accounts. “I’m a real student of [renowned chef] Charlie Trotter, and he says that when you totally commit yourself to a project, provenance takes over and things begin to happen that you can’t explain, things you could never have accomplished if you planned or tried to make them happen.”

Brach has happily been at Rich’s for eight years now, but his passion for—and learning about—cooking hasn’t let up despite the regular hours. For the past seven years, he’s been a strong advocate for the Western New York slow food movement, another development, he laughs, that came about by chance.

“You continue doing things because you want to learn more about what’s out there; you don’t always plan on doing anything with it,” he says. As so it happened that on a plane trip to the West Coast in 2002, Brach randomly read a profile about Flying Pigs organic farm, and soon after found himself on a business trip to Albany which, coincidentally, is very near that very farm in Shushan, New York. With a Sunday afternoon to kill, Brach called the farm, and ended up getting both a private tour and an education about the breeding of heritage pigs.

“That was my first experience with that kind of thing,” Brach notes. “And from there, I heard about Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, and I was driving from CIA [the Culinary Institute of America; Brach is a graduate] to Massachusetts, and passed right by Old Chatham. So I found the farm, and said ‘I just want to learn more about the cheese-making business I saw on TV,’ and they took me through the whole farm.”

The farm visits may have prompted Brach to further explore slow food, but the seeds were planted in his youth—in his father’s garden. Though he resented the work as a child, Brach nonetheless learned the ropes. When he and wife Susan moved to Clarence in 1988, he started his own garden, where he now grows cucumbers, squash, potatoes, green beans, beets, carrots, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, and herbs. Two years ago, he added a ten-by-ten-foot heirloom tomato garden. From July through October, the gardens supply his family of four with all the vegetables they need, along with excess to freeze for the winter months. “When I got my own land here, I became intrigued with family farms,” he says. “You really have to persevere with a family farm to make it work, and that’s kind of what I admire with people in life—not getting rich or famous but doing your thing and believing it’s right.”

Once Brach developed that mindset, it infiltrated everything he did. For many years, Dinner for Eight with Father Yetter has been a popular item in the parish auction at St. Mary’s Church in Swormville. Eight years ago, Brach took over the cooking duties from Father Yetter’s housekeeper; four years ago, he decided it was appropriate to prepare the meal using fresh, local ingredients. Items like chilled cucumber and yogurt soup with fresh dill and chive, and risotto with pan-roasted Lake Erie perch impressed Kathy Egan, who’d been invited to the dinner by her brother, the prizewinner and the deacon at St. Mary’s.

A CIA graduate and executive vice president for Beaver Hollow Conference Center, Egan kept popping in and out of the kitchen to ask Brach how he’d prepared certain foods. Soon after that evening, she asked him if would consult with Beaver Hollow to incorporate more local foods into the menu. Brach was flattered, but overwhelmed. “I really wanted to do it, but I was so busy at Rich’s,” he says. “Then the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Brach researched local sources for produce and meat, then worked with Egan and the Beaver Hollow chef to determine how these items could be incorporated into seasonal menus; he also encouraged the planting of an herb garden. “One of the things we talked about was that it doesn’t have to be 100 percent right now, but that if they’ve got heirloom tomatoes from Tom Tower’s farm, they should be identified on the menu, because it shows diners you’re committed to using local produce,” Brach explains. “I helped them build a menu around what’s in season. We could have winter squash soup on the menu, but why have that when we have cucumbers? Why have carrot bisque when we have fresh spring onions and leeks?”

Fresh heirloom tomatoes show off their flavor in a simple crostini preparation.

Most of the time, it’s a matter of adaptation. If Brach sees a braised leek recipe on a TV cooking show, he’ll adapt it to spring onions. “That’s what I preach,” he maintains. “Take what you’re seeing, the current trends, and adapt them using things in the same vegetable family that are fresh and local right now. If a salad recipe uses endive, how can you adapt it to use a green that’s in season right now? It’s very matter of fact.”

So much so that Brach decided to write a book about it. The Sustainable Chef: Cooking With the Farmers of New York State, a volume of local farm profiles and accompanying recipes, was truly “a basement project,” says Brach, who believes Western New York could be wholly sustainable. “I did all the research, writing, and most of the photography.” Nonetheless, the book has sold more than 1,000 copies and garnered Brach increased attention as a sustainable chef and food critic. “I’ve found myself with five different master chefs judging a student culinary competition,” Brach marvels. “How did I ever get to this point?”

Donna Hoke is the editor of Buffalo Spree Home.

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