Hyper-local Hydroponics in Restaurants

By Keith Howerton

Basil harvested from Farmshelf hydroponic growth chamberThe 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.  

Hydroponic BasilThis 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 Basil in Farmshelf Hydroponic Growing Chamberbusy 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. Farmshelf Hydroponic Chamber

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).

Herbs Add Interest to Beer

Herbs Add Interest to Beer

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America


Copyright Ohio University

In late June I took my youngest son to orientation at Ohio University where he plans to study biology with the goal of finding a job in environmental science. (His mom’s influence, perhaps?) For the two-day introduction parents and students separated for sessions of different focus. Up to this point, no problem.

But … let’s just say I’m GPS–challenged. Faced with too many one-way streets and no co-pilot, I looped the campus twice before finding the assigned parking lot. After an already long day of bouncing among buildings, I walked yet another half mile – with luggage – to the dorm room check-in line. Then, by streetlight I trudged another quarter mile and lugged my stuff up three flights of stairs … only to find broken air conditioning.

Overcome by emotions and fatigue I was near tears. A kind gentleman on the orientation staff helped me relocate. Requiring some self-medication I asked him to recommend a place for beer … something within easy walking distance.

20170701_180035His suggestion: Jackie O’s Public House in uptown Athens, Ohio.

To my delight, the brewers are playful and many of their beers use unlikely ingredients. Yes, that includes herbs … a trend that you’ll read more about in the 2018 edition of The Herbarist.

Upon hearing I like bitter, hoppy beer, Bartender Bruce thunked two brews on the wooden bar top – Jackie O’s New Growth Summer Spruce Tip IPA and Jackie O’s Next Level Lager (the first India Pale Lager I’ve ever seen) – and waited for my facial expressions to change. The Lager was good, but the IPA was amazing. The reason, perhaps, was the inclusion of lemon balm and spruce tips in the brewing process. Both are grown on a farm owned by Jackie O’s.

A few swallows and my problems buzzed away. The spruce tips enhanced a fresh piney bitterness and I suspect the lemon balm added a clean and crisp quality.

To entertain myself – after all I was a single woman at a bar — I read through the list of 30 beers created by the brew master. In addition to raspberries, various hops and bourbon-barrel aging, herbs were part of the formula. These included …

  • Pretty Ricky, a blonde ale made with hibiscus flowers.
  • Tongue Thai’d, an IPA made with lemon grass, lemon verbena and ginger.
  • Oro Negro, an imperial stout made with vanilla beans, cacao nibs, cinnamon and Habanero peppers then conditions for months on oak staves.
  • Gose, a mixed culture beer brewed with salt and coriander.

Relaxed and re-energized, I headed back to the dorm with samples of New Growth Summer Spruce Tip IPA to share with those back home.

Mint gains popularity on restaurant menus

This article first appeared in  Nation’s Restaurant News, October 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission

By Fern Glazer20150905_162421 (1)

Two years ago, mint was used sparingly on the menu at Wok Box Fresh Asian Kitchen, mostly to tone down spice on a few dishes. These days, the herb has found its way into 40 percent of the items on the six-unit, fast-casual chain’s menu.

“Mint is really hot right now,” said Clay Carson, director of U.S. franchise development for Vancouver, Canada-based Wok Box. “Mint makes it magic.”

Mint, a common herb in Vietnamese cooking, is a key ingredient in Wok Box’s signature herb mixture, made with mint, basil and cilantro, that tops many of the restaurant’s noodle, rice and curry boxes.

“The cilantro gives it a brightness, the basil adds savory, but the mint really mellows everything,” Carson said.

The chain also puts mint in more than half of its custom infused waters, such as cucumber mint, watermelon mint and, the most popular, lime mint.

While Wok Box has always used mint in its curry dishes, it began increasing use of the herb after some kitchen experimentation and testing revealed that customers found it particularly appealing, especially when paired with the lime wedge included on many dishes.

MojitoMint is growing in more places than just Wok Box’s menu. According to the latest research from Datassential MenuTrends, the fragrant herb has grown 25 percent on menus at all segments in the last four years. While the strongest growth is coming from beverages, mint has been growing in appetizers and entrées as well. Mint now appears in 50 percent more appetizers, 19 percent more sides and 16 percent more entrées than it did four years ago.

There are more than 30 different varieties of mint, several of which appear in dishes on the menu at Easy Bistro + Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn. For example, black mint, also known huacatay, appears in the Roasted Wagyu Hanger Steak entrée with chive horseradish whipped potatoes, baby carrots, and peppercorn Burgundy truffle jus. Pineapple mint, a mild, citrusy-tasting variety, is in a small plate of Maine Lobster Salad with candied grapefruit, rémoulade blanc, pickled baby fennel and Bibb lettuce. And petite mint is used in a small plate of Sea Scallop Carpaccio with cucumber, sorghum popcorn and winter radish.

“I always have mint on my menu somewhere,” said Easy Bistro chef de cuisine Peter Barlow. “It’s very versatile. They all work in different ways and they all taste different.”

Also using pineapple mint is Michael Kornick, chef and owner of MK in Chicago. Kornick serves a late summer/early fall tomato salad made with local heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, dried cured olives and a buttermilk crisp topped with pineapple mint.

At Tulio in Seattle, chef Water Pisano serves lamb sirloin with mint syrup and mint and basil yogurt, a riff on the old-fashioned fine-dining dish of rack of lamb with mint jelly.

“That was the traditional dish that inspired me, but I wanted to update it with the fresh mint, the sweetness of basil and the tartness of Greek yogurt,” Pisano said. “I like the brightness and freshness it instantly gives to a dish. Reminds me of great Mediterranean, Greek and Italian flavors.”

Pisano’s modern take starts with mint and basil yogurt on the plate, followed by fregula sarda pasta with Castelvetrano olives and currant, topped with sliced lamb sirloin (which has been dry rubbed and roasted), and finished with a drizzle of strained mint syrup. Though the dish has been on the menu a few years, Pisano says it sells too well to remove.

At Tre Enoteca, a Tuscan-inspired spot in San Antonio, Texas, executive chef and owner Jason Dady uses mint as a finisher to add “fresh and vibrant flavor” to two side dishes: pan-roasted Brussels sprouts with dates and preserved lemon, and Mint and Mascarpone Mashers with fried egg.

And chef Dave Becker of Juniper in Wellesley, Mass., is currently serving classic fried calamari with mint yogurt.

“We were after the richness of a tartar sauce but wanted to add something a little different,” Becker said. “Something that made people pause after they tasted it. By adding mint you can take a dish that is heavy and make it lighter.”