By Keith Howerton
The chef looked up at me, astonished, with a crumpled up Genovese basil leaf in his hand. “Oh my god, that smells fantastic,” he said, laughing and shaking his head. We had just gone over proper basil harvesting technique, and I had invited him to pinch off a leaf of the basil he had just grown for the first time inside the restaurant. It’s funny, even chefs at nicer restaurants get used to subpar quality when it’s all they have access to. It’s just so difficult for chefs to get really fresh, high quality herbs in the consistent, predictable quantities they need to run a kitchen. So, they settle. How did he grow basil inside the restaurant? We’ll get to that in a minute.
Back in college, I worked in a fairly upscale restaurant. A couple times a week, I remember seeing a delivery person from a big distributor back into the loading dock in a huge refrigerated truck, offload “fresh” produce, and bring it into the kitchen. Then, a few of the cooks would unpackage these boxes filled with Genovese basil, rosemary, and mint. I still remember the first time I gave the basil a smell. It didn’t smell bad, but it didn’t smell good either. And the mint used as a garnish for some of the fancy desserts smelled vaguely of mint, and that’s being generous.
Anyone who has grown basil at home knows and loves its rich, sweet scent. But when you shove that beautiful, fragrant basil in a plastic bag and cram it in a refrigerator for a week, it doesn’t smell so good anymore. It develops off flavors and loses some of its vibrant green color. Sadly, this is what the vast majority of restaurants are forced to do when they want fresh herbs.
And it’s not their fault! Nor is it the farmers’ fault. You cannot have exceptional quality fresh herbs when there is that lag time between harvest and food preparation. Most fresh herbs, especially basil, have very short shelf-lives. But these restaurant owners have businesses to run, so they choose consistently mediocre quality rather than fantastic quality in inconsistent quantities.
Anyway, back to the present.
This chef is now able to grow top-notch herbs inside his restaurant, just feet away from the kitchen, because he has a sophisticated hydroponic growing system called a Farmshelf.
For those who are not familiar, hydroponics just means growing plants without soil. Instead, the plant’s roots are bathed in water with nutrients dissolved in it. The only thing reminiscent of soil is the very small amount of growing medium used to germinate the seed and anchor the plant.
Hydroponics is a very complex topic, and there are lots of pros and cons to growing in a hydroponic system rather than growing in the ground. (That’s a discussion for another day.) But for those of us in the restaurant industry, it’s a no-brainer because it allows busy restaurant staff with no in-ground space to grow high quality produce year-round. Additionally, since it is kept nice and clean, this method prevents just about any pest or plant pathogen you can think of.
The quality difference between what comes out of this chef’s set-up and what comes from the distributor is phenomenal. (Disclaimer: I do work for a hydroponic systems company geared toward the restaurant industry, so I applaud anyone who is using these technologies to innovate and work toward more efficient food systems that provide higher quality produce. In college, I did some work with hydroponics and was excited to learn that there were companies using hydroponics to fill gaps and solve inefficiencies I had seen in the fresh herb supply chain.) As much as I would love to say the quality difference is because we’re just so super incredibly talented, I think this massive quality difference comes down to two main factors: a controlled growing environment and the freshness.
You know how in hot weather basil goes to flower and develops that off, licorice-type smell? Well, when you’re inside a controlled environment, where the temperatures stay around 80 degrees or less, it may as well be springtime. I have never seen the basil try to flower in this particular set-up. So, you effectively get springtime-quality basil year round when you grow in a system like this.
As for the freshness, how much fresher can you get than inside your restaurant? And thanks to the massive energy savings afforded by recent advancements in LED technology, it’s now feasible to have some systems plug right into a wall outlet.
I know I am biased, but man… it’s a beauty, isn’t it?
Photo Credits: 1) Freshly harvested basil; 2) Basil in hydroponic pots; 3) Roots of basil grown in hydroponic situation; 4) Farmshelf hydroponic growth chamber. All photos courtesy of the author.
After getting a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University, Keith was the 2017 National Herb Garden intern, and then spent a year and a half in the Gardens Unit at the U.S. National Arboretum. He now works for an indoor farm company called Farmshelf and is obsessed with all things growing food, foreign languages, and cooking (and eating).