August 20, 2012

Farmer Lee Jones of the Chef's Garden: International man of Mystery, Intrigue, Bow-ties & Squash Blossoms...

Farmer Lee Jones
This story, for me, has been a long time coming. Six years to be exact. It was roughly 2006 when I was first made aware of the special little place out in Ohio producing these special ingredients. A chef's Garden of Eden, if you will. For one reason or another I just could not get out to see this place for myself. I had spoken to Farmer Lee, his team, yet the trip had never materialized until this year. This past July, I was able to finally accept their gracious offer of hospitality and visit during their Veggie U Food & Wine Celebration, as they celebrated its 10th Anniversary. Sometimes things happen for a reason, as Lee will agree, sometimes relationships and opportunities come when they are supposed to. I have learned that sometimes, when things fall into place naturally it's because they were always meant to; not as we would have them happen, but in their own season, picked fresh at their own most opportune time. Sound like a garden metaphor? Well it is...and that, my friends, was my experience this year at  The Chef’s Garden in Ohio. 

From the moment I stepped on the property, I felt different. The welcome I received was genuine and by the end of my weekend I had come to believe, somehow, that these folks had known me and I them, all of our lives. They treated me like family. While I was busy thinking very highly of myself, feeling special indeed, I witnessed them offer this same level of hospitality and pureness of human interaction to everyone, famous or not, chef or student, writer or blogger, or guest. This is just who these folks are and I realized how lucky we all were, in this place at this particular moment, to be invited and sharing this with Lee and his Chef's Garden family.

The specialness of this place goes beyond tilling the ground and working it with love to produce some of the most incredible produce you can imagine. This place seems to also till the souls of those that come in contact with it. It nourishes you, fertilizes your mind and spirit, inspiring you always be at your freshest, most flavorful peak. That is the real secret of this place. Lee explained this to me as we talked in the study, surrounded by his history, sitting in high back chairs high above the kitchens below, chefs bustling about readying their entrees for the competition. "The land is special," he began, "due to the glaciers. This had been a lake bed and it's nutrient rich. That's what makes this place special." In Huron, Ohio, the lake winds bring sweet, moist air; the soil, which was formerly lake bottom, is sandy and fertile. This combination offers the perfect micro-climate for "growing vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature."

I completely agree that the produce is special and even the land. I disagree, however, with what makes it so. Lake bed aside, someone had to love this land enough to fight for it and lovingly work it to help it produce its bounty. I have come to believe it is the people here at Chef's Garden who make this particular land special. With love, caring and devotion to each other first, with the land in common. And, they do it with people too. I think if you picked up this team and moved them anywhere, they would have the same result. It was my pleasure to sit and discuss with Lee, on this occasion of the celebration's 10 year anniversary, how it, this farm and this unique family came to be what it is today. He brought me back in time.

The Jones Boys: Bob Sr., Lee & Bob Jr.
"When this story began. some 40 years ago, not far from the shores of Lake Erie, my dad was working with our old John Deere tractor, designing modifications that would increase the efficiency of field production on the farm. Every week, Dad, Bobby and I harvested and packed produce, then took it to the Cleveland farmers' markets. We also had a daily stand in the front yard of the house." In 1980, a hailstorm devastated the family farm leaving them but 6 acres and the life Lee and his family family had worked incredibly hard for their whole lives, his mother's car, their acres of well-toiled land and their cozy family home, was gone in a day.

"My parents were nondrinkers, nonsmokers, and didn't miss a day of church in 25 years," Farmer explains proudly, "When they made money, they reinvested back in the farm. When interest rates hit 23 percent and the storm devastated our crops, we started over from almost nothing. I saw my dad very broken spirited," Lee remembers, "I left college, worked 10 years with no paycheck and helped put my brother and sister through college. I can't imagine doing anything else. Working with my dad is amazing."

Bob Jones, Sr.
In the farming business for more than 50 years, Bob Jones, Sr. has led The Chef's Garden to innovate how vegetables are grown, harvested, packaged and delivered to the kitchen door of top chefs around the world. It was Mr. Bob, as he's fondly referred to on the farm, who recognized the value in meeting the needs of chefs who were driving a return to sustainable agriculture, a reconnection with food producers and a focus on quality and flavor. Lee explains further, "Well the real story on how we came to be a chef's garden is a bit different than most think. All our literature says it was a family decision," winking he added, "but let me tell ya how it really happened. When that hail storm hit, we lost everything except for 6 acres. Out of 600. We were devastated," he recalled. "I had a met a French chef who had asked me about growing some vegetables, particularly, squash blossoms. The chef was looking for the same quality product available in France, so we took care of this chef and others as well. At this time we had a big decision to make, being down in acreage. Do we stick with the farmers markets or do we specialize in chefs and their needs? My dad put it to a vote. 5 hands around the table, including mine, all voted for the farmers markets. My dad looked around the table, slammed his hand on the table and shouted. "Then it's final...we're doing chefs!" That is the real story of how the 'family' decided to cater to chefs," he laughed.

To many chefs, Farmer Lee embodies The Chef's Garden. Perpetually clad in his trademark overalls and a red bow-tie, it is not uncommon to see Farmer Jones at the culinary industry's top shows and events. We spoke about his choice of attire just hours before the festival. "I've been everywhere in my overalls, Iron chef to The James Beard Awards, where everyone was in a tux and I had on my overalls," he paused, "a new pair of course but, they were still overalls." Lee has been featured in numerous national publications, including Bon Appétit, Cooking Light, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine and The Washington Post. The farm has been featured on The Martha Stewart Show, Food Network's Roker on the Road, CNN Business Unusual, and ABC World News. He was also the first farmer ever
Lee, Michelle Obama, Robert Irvine
to judge the popular Food Network TV program Iron Chef America. "It has become a trademark," he says with a gleam in his eye, "and I'm very protective of the image and how it affects the farm. I love it though and am happy to be the face of The Chef's Garden."

The Famous Red Bow-Ties
On this topic I could not help but to inquire about a rumor I had heard throughout our years knowing each other. I asked Lee if it were true that in his closet, he had nothing but white shirts, overalls and that he had all his ties lined up. He laughed and replied, "Yes that is actually true," and immediately invited me up to the house, a large spacious log cabin that serves as his and Mary's home and is located in the the back corner of the property that houses
It's True! Just overalls & white shirts.
the Culinary Vegetable Institute. Indeed, as you can see from these exclusive pictures, seen here first, Lee indeed has a closet full of overalls, white shirt and clearly his ties are all neatly lined up.

It is here, basically in Farmer Lee's front yard that the tents and trappings of the festival take place. It seems fitting, almost like it's just a big ol' barbecue with a few hundred of your closest friends and some world famous chefs and culinary personalities thrown in. This year's headliners were Restaurant Impossible's, Robert Irvine, Top Chef Just Desserts', Johnny Iuzzini, BBC America's Clair Robinson, Madison Cowen from No Kitchen Required and Amanda Freitag from Chopped to lend it some sizzle.

Johnny Iuzzini, me, Lee, Clair Robinson
From celebrities to chefs, to volunteers, to sous chefs and students, whomever you are, here, the hospitality of this team of people is palpable. I was fortunate on this their 10th Anniversary to be invited into their home and really get a behind the scenes look at the back bone that supports this farm: The Jones Family. On that topic, I must digress and tell a story which summed up my day with this family and team.

We have all heard the phrases, 'out of the mouths of babes' and 'everything has its start at the head and trickles down." Well, as I prepared for the day, Lee offered his home as my base of operations covering the festival, and as it was a hot day, with my physical limitations, a place to rest and take a break from the festivities. As I got myself situated, behind the island in the kitchen was a cherub faced little girl, about 8 yrs old, with red curly hair, wearing a chef's coat that said "Chef's Garden.' She introduced herself as Mary Grace, Lee's granddaughter. I introduced myself as well and she asked if I would care for something to drink. I replied, "That would be nice, yes please." She then turned her back to me, took something out of her pocket and stood hunched for a few seconds. Then she whirled around and handed me a hand written list, on a small message sized paper on which she had written five or six items to choose from, such as Water, Juice, Coke, etc. I placed my order, which she wrote down on a separate piece of paper and then she proceeded to get my drink and serve it to me, asking, "Would you like anything else?" I said no, thanked her and handed her a dollar, eliciting a big grin, and polite thank you. I later heard that she was telling everyone who would listen about the experience. I guess it was a special to her as it was to me. This, my friends, embodies the spirit of every person I met over the course of this celebration. Warm, engaging, real and well, downright hospitable.

The Chef' Garden

Chef's Garden Herbs
As the direct connection to the chef, Lee leads the passionate team members at The Chef's Garden to continually excel beyond their own high standards in quality and service, in order to deliver the finest quality vegetables direct from Earth to Table® to the world's greatest culinarians. The Chef's Garden grows and innovates as a partnership between chefs and farmers. They grow what chefs want, often what is otherwise impossible to find. And they host hundreds of chefs at their farm each year, where those chefs‚ "can do R & D or get R & R," Jones explained, " at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, a retreat with culinary library, private kitchen, and Jacuzzi." He continued, "This is a really special place. I have seen and been part of many special moments here at CVI. My dad envisioned it as a place where chefs and culinarians could come and reconnect with the land, the
Clair Robinson, Johnny Iuzzini, Madison Cowen
ingredients, with their passion for cooking and food again. So we built these kitchens and a chefs suite along with a suite downstairs for the chef's sous chefs and team and it's become almost like a retreat house for chefs. One experience I remember in particular," he smiled before continuing,"because it was so special to my Dad, was when we first opened. We were seeking help getting the word out, Charlie Trotter, who is a dear friend and has supported us from the beginning by telling other chefs about us, arranged a dinner with all of us here and Ferran Adria. My dad was just thrilled. We have had a lot of well known chefs come through here. For instance Grant Achatz came and spent quite a few days here, working on new menus and dishes with his team."

The Culinary Vegetable Institute
Sitting on approximately 100 acres, the Institute includes a 1,500 square foot state-of-the-art two story Kitchen designed by Mark Stech-Novak with full audio-visual capabilities for demonstrations; a 1426 square foot Dining Room with 22 foot ceilings (capable of seating 90); an Executive Chef Suite with luxury amenities; accommodations for visiting chefs’ teams; a Culinary Library; Root Cellar, Wine Cellar and it also includes an experimental vegetable, forest and herb gardens.

Chefs’ Haven:
Visiting chefs can utilize the CVI’s facilities and gardens for educational, team building and retreat purposes. With the farm nearby, chefs can experience The Chef’s Garden planting and harvesting methods, pick vegetables themselves and return to the CVI for relaxation or to experiment in the kitchen. Today, the CVI continues its commitment to its chefs, but they have also opened their doors to the community by sharing their facility with corporations, organizations and people who seek a unique venue for the finest in agri-culinary experiences. For more information, visit CVI's website here.

Veggie U
The sharp increase in childhood obesity and diabetes in our nation is nothing short of alarming. It's clear the majority of children today have little or no connection to the food they eat, where it comes from and how it impacts their health. This reality prompted Bob Jones and his wife Barb – along with chefs, nutritionists, doctors, educators and volunteers -- to create and launch the Veggie U program. Since 2003, Veggie U has been committed to changing these trends by reaching out to teachers and children across the country. Located in Milan, Ohio, Veggie U is a national not-for-profit organization that offers an Earth to Table™ science curriculum to fourth grade and special needs classrooms. Their goal is to place this exciting hands-on curriculum in all 93,000 fourth grade classrooms nationwide in an effort to decrease childhood disease and increase youth awareness of healthy food options and the importance of sustainable agriculture. Healthy kids also learn better and become more active contributing members to their families and communities.

Veggie U's Earth to Table™ curriculum recognizes that children would greatly benefit from understanding the connection between what they consume and how that food is grown. Educating children in an engaging, experiential way helps them to learn. Veggie U's science-based program offers a hands-on seed-to-planting-to-harvest experience. A complete grow kit is provided along with a comprehensive teacher's manual written to cover state and national 4th grade science standards. The benchmarks for these standards are included at the beginning of each lesson so that teachers can integrate them into existing curriculum.

Robert Irvine cooks with Veggie U kids
In addition to a hands-on, scientific approach to learning about plants and their components, the Veggie U curriculum incorporates extensive journal activities, mathematics, language arts and fine arts, providing an interactive and enjoyable way for students to study these core concepts. The classroom lessons include studies of soil, composting, planting, nutrition and plant anatomy. The students also care for a worm farm, raise a mini "crop", and celebrate the end of the program with a vegetable Feast Day. Veggie U has delivered more than 1800 classroom kits across 26 states. To learn more about Veggie U, visit the Veggie U website.

As we got ready for the start of the day's festivities, heading out of our cozy space high atop the CVI kitchens into the throngs waiting to greet Lee, he turned to me with an after thought, "Ya know," he smiled putting his arm around my shoulders as we walked, "it's a great place. We have a wonderful team that's dedicated and who keep me going. I can't let them and all the kids down. And, based upon the outpouring from chefs and the culinary establishment, we're blessed to have so many folks who understand our vision. The Farm and these Veggie U Celebrations, as well as our little piece of the earth out here has become world reknown. Pretty cool." I would have to agree, Lee, pretty cool indeed. This place and these people have a new fan and new member of the family and I am blessed and glad to be a part of it. I hope you enjoyed a look at this enigmatic man and his Chef's Garden family. It was my pleasure and I look forward to next year's event and bringing you more of the adventures of Farmer Lee Jones...international man of mystery, intrigue, bow-ties...and squash blossoms.


As always, bon appetit,

Lou

Sources;  The Chef’s Garden, Farmer Lee Jones, The Jones Family, ulterior epicure

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