Raymond Blanc has inspired chefs around the UK to start their own kitchen gardens for the freshest possible produce
When female diners visit the loo at the top London restaurant Pied à Terre, they will be in for a surprise: Marco Pierre White will be staring back at them through the window. And no, the Hell’s Kitchen chef hasn’t turned Peeping Tom — his photograph is stuck on the head of a scarecrow, to keep pigeons out of the two Michelin-starred chef Shane Osborn’s rooftop kitchen garden (the Knorr apron his mischievous finishing touch). “I’m going to change the picture every couple of months,” Osborn grins. “Michael Winner is next, with a pinny that says ‘Calm down dear’.”
He is very proud of his new roof garden, which he started sowing last autumn. This year he has added plants that he has propagated himself, from seeds grown on a windowsill. It’s small, measuring just six metres by four, yet it grows nearly 200 plants, including 15 different herbs and numerous edible flowers, from borage to caraway. There are also various vegetables and fruits, from Jerusalem artichokes to redcurrants, all of which Osborn uses in his innovative dishes.
“I started the garden initially to teach the guys how to grow things,” he says, “but I also wanted to plant a seed in people’s minds that we can all help the environment in some small way.” He has installed a wormery and a 650-litre composter — which is fed by food scraps from the kitchen — but hasn’t quite sorted out the water problem yet. At present it takes two chefs armed with buckets to keep the garden watered every day, and the only access is through a window. “But they love it: it’s a great place to hang out between service. And to be able to pick stuff this fresh, especially the flowers, which haven’t got a long shelf life, is quite something. There’s loads of empty roof space in London, so use it.”
Space isn’t something that worries your country house hotel. Following the lead of top French chefs such as Michel Bras and Alain Passard, who have elevated the kitchen garden to a new level, they have revived traditional potagers that once fed grand families and are now feeding us.
These kitchen gardens have become attractions in their own right, where head chefs team up with head gardeners to get the best out of their produce at hotels such as Mallory Court, near Leamington Spa, and the most ambitious of all, at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, in Oxfordshire, where Raymond Blanc and his brigade wander the gardens in their whites, snapping off broad beans and digging up artichokes under the watchful eye of drooling guests, stomachs rumbling at the prospect of a freshly picked dinner.
One of the most established is the organic kitchen garden at the celebrated Lancashire hotel and restaurant, Northcote Manor. “I think one of the best things is that it makes you more creative,” says the head chef, Lisa Allen. Thanks to the green fingers of her boss, the chef proprietor Nigel Haworth, Allen now gets as excited about vegetables and herbs as she does about meat and fish. “I’ve got so much more respect for produce now I’ve actually seen how things grow. Our focus at the moment is old English varieties: we’re trying eight different potatoes at the moment, each with their own flavour, and 15 different types of cress. It stimulates the mind. We’re always finding ways to use up all the produce,” she says.
Matthew Tomkinson, the head chef of the Michelin-starred Terrace restaurant at The Montagu Arms Hotel in Hampshire, agrees. “There’s nothing like a glut of courgettes to force you down the road of experimentation,” he says. “It has given us an opportunity to go back to a time when Nature dictates.”
This is the first year for the hotel restaurant’s kitchen garden, developed on land adjacent to the property that was bought last year. “It was a jungle, and a great leveller. I’ll never forget the sight of our general manager pulling down trees, and our chefs ripping up roots.”
There are now herbs galore (lemon verbena is a current favourite), plus a polytunnel filled with strawberries, tomatoes and other vegetables, an asparagus bed, and beds each for runner beans and red fruits. “Chefs used to turn their noses up at produce if it was misshapen or dirty; now I can’t keep ours out of the garden,” says Tomkinson.
A bowl of homegrown produce at reception encourages guests to take an interest in the garden, which is overlooked by the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The installation of hen houses has proven so popular that there has been a noticeable decline in chicken orders at dinner: “Sometimes there are up to six couples standing here watching us feed them — yes, we are all beginning to reconnect with Nature in some way.”
You could argue that Matthew Owsley-Brown has gone native. The Norfolk-based chef sold his popular fish restaurant in Burnham Market last year to create a catering company with a difference: one that grows and rears its own produce for the business. In addition to planting fruit, vegetables and herbs at their new five-acre home in the village of West Bilney, near Swaffham, the Owsley-Brown family are now the proud owners of two Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs. “This first year has been a bit of an experiment. We’ve been finding our inner hippy,” he laughs.
Owsley-Brown has already constructed a commercial kitchen in one of the outbuildings and is planning a series of pop-up restaurants in the sunny courtyard from August, alerting potential diners of the dates via Facebook and Twitter.
The polytunnels, donated by a local farmer, are now packed with different Mediterranean vegetables, while out on the plot are an array of vegetables and fruits. “Yes, you make mistakes,” Owsley-Brown says, “but it’s the only way to learn. You’ve just got to do it.”
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