Field Report: A Spring Farm Run in The Redland

On Sundays and Wednesdays at 9:00AM an email is sent out to some of the best chefs and produce junkies in Miami.  I was lucky it was a Wednesday when I found myself poking around the walk-in cooler at Farm to Kitchen HQ.  While owner Chris Padin finished up the morning’s transmission, I became acquainted with the fridge, a snapshot of spring’s arrival in South Florida.  There were passion fruit the size of ostrich eggs, a box of rosy-rooted watermelon radishes and a crate of bright green sapote, the kind of gems that conceal the real treasures just beneath their skins — sweet tart seeds jeweled bright orange, pink and green rings to make even Saturn jealous, and sweet flesh tasting of chocolate custard with the color and texture to match.  Mesmerizing.  Losing the feeling in my fingers was my cue to exit.

Chris had just hit send as he explained, “I update the email blast twice a week. It lists the farms, their products, price and classification. Then, the chefs have about a day to call me with their orders.” I peeked and counted about 10 farms with a long list of veggies, dairy products, greens, herbs and fruits.  Chris and partner Aleli Lauria-Padin operate Farm to Kitchen, and I think they have the best jobs on planet Earth. Picking up the good stuff from all over South Florida and dropping it to some of the best restaurants in Miami.  Currently, Farm to Kitchen works with 12 – 15 farms and supplies about 30 restaurants.  Both numbers are steadily growing branching out from Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink to all the TGHG restaurants including The Cypress Room, Harry’s Pizzeria and Restaurant Michael Schwartz.  The couple is careful to expand at the right pace with the right people, and now includes some familiar names as well as new kids on the block from Eating House, 27 Restaurant and Vagabond, to Proper Sausages and Fooq’s.  But today was about the farms, five farms to be exact: Verde Gardens, Teena’s Pride, Knaus Berry, Corona and Bee Heaven all in Homestead — a world away from our home in the Design District.

On the 40 or so minute ride down, we passed farm after farm, but not the type I was expecting.  Fields of palm trees, hedges, and other ornamentals, all neatly arranged in rows fanned out beside us.  These landscaping nurseries were all cool to look at, but, as Chris was quick to remind me, they all could be growing food instead.  Our first stop was Verde Gardens, a 22-acre farm staffed and operated through the Urban Oasis Project whose goal it is to teach formerly homeless families how to run a farm. Every available patch of green is utilized. Chris and I walked through two of the largest plots, and I listened intently as he rattled off the names of all the greens and herbs. We stopped at some for a closer look. I was stuck on the rainbow chard and its richer than rich reds, yellows and oranges. Chris suggested that we take a look at Verde Gardens’ tropical fruits tucked away behind a barn, and sure enough, my mind was blown. A giant banana flower hung inconspicuously in the sky. It was about the size of a football. I had never seen such a thing! As far as I was concerned, bananas grew on trees and were yellow, sometimes green. But this flower, and flowers like it in various stages of growth, were completely exotic to me. On our way out, I met Chuck, one of the farm managers. Chris and Chuck started talking about orders, the impending close to the season and loquats. I quickly Googled ‘loquats’ – but more on that later…

Next up, Teena’s Pride. One thing I noticed, everything is bigger at Teena’s. The Borek family has been operating this 500-acre farm for many generations. There are tomatoes as far as they eye can see, and then some. Every kind of heritage and heirloom tomato occupy rows at least a mile long. While Chris and I were inspecting some pancake-sized nasturtiums, Chef Niven called. He wanted an update on the tomato ‘situation,’ and Chris filled him in, reporting that “they have lots of greens, and there are a few cases with some great color on ‘em, good variety.” And it was done. Chris ordered 30 cases for Niven to be delivered the next morning. There are tomatoes growing in fields and in greenhouses; there are tomatoes on giant trays with their own irrigation system and growing in cooling houses. These tomatoes could survive the apocalypse. Having all this space allows Teena’s to test out crops. They had a few new heirloom varieties in the grow house, Chris explains, “if they make it in the grow house, and people like the taste, then they get moved to the fields and from there to Niven at the restaurant.”

Unlike the other farms, Knaus Berry Farms was busy entertaining the public – and on a Wednesday morning!  We walked into a market area with signs for milk shakes, strawberries, cinnabuns and veggies. There were loads of people walking up and down the u-pick aisles outside. KBF has strawberries for miles, and, as we were told inside, that wasn’t even half of their crop. This place has a cult following, and I’m the newest recruit. The strawberries sat in perfect rows, peeping out from the white plastic sheeting, there to protect them. They are plump, perfectly ripe and bright red. As Chris and I were leaving, we met by the Bald Baker, Thomas Blocher, who runs the bakery at KBF and supervises the creation of hundreds of trays of cinnabuns every day. He recently started blending his own coffee, deftly called “Bald Baker’s Blend”– which we sampled. It is delicious! Chef de cuisine Danny Ramirez is taking the Harry’s Pizzeria kitchen crew on a field trip to Knaus later this month, so more on them to come.

We had to pick up some sugarcane for our booth at the Sprung! event Harry’s and Michael’s Genuine Home Brew participated in last weekend, so Chris and I rode over to Corona Farms / Martha’s U-Pick. Right off of Krome Avenue is this perfectly self-contained stand offering some of the best Southern Hospitality I’ve seen in South Florida since moving here from Charleston, South Carolina. Within moments of our arrival, Chris handed me a coconut with a straw poking out of it. I look up to see him hacking away at another coconut with a machete. A tiny puppy roams around like he owns the place, and he’s got it made. There are bananas on display and every color pepper you could imagine. This stand had bins of tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and a variety of lettuces. The whole place is electrified with color. If you look out behind the stand, you can see the farm, completely green and lush with a sugarcane perimeter. Not only was this convenient, but incredibly beautiful.

Bee Haven Farm was like a secret garden. As we wove our way through tropical trees, Chris plucked leaves and greens for me to try. He crumbled up an allspice leaf in his hands and told me to sniff.  The smell was biting! We walked up to a few rows and Chris stopped me from going any further, as he pointed to the sign ‘BEES AT WORK.’ I saw about 10 filing boxes stacked on top of each other. Yup, they were filled with bees. There were also a few loose chickens wandering around, and more in little coops strategically placed around the farm. Permaculture is a theory of farming that makes full use of all the benefits the crops have to offer. Here was permaculture at work: The chickens graze and provide manure, while the bees pollinate and bounce from plant to plant. The farmers rotate the crops, moving certain flowers to attract different bugs and monitor growing rates. Hidden in this hide away oasis, we found pencil mulberries, black tomatoes, tamarind and loquats.

 

Loquats at Bee Haven Farm

Loquats at Bee Haven Farm

Loquats are a fruit native to the East, often called a Chinese plum or Japanese plum. They are high in sugar and acid and are commonly used to make jam. These new crops are always exciting for the farmers and for Chris, as well. He thinks these would be a big hit for the Farm to Kitchen Buying Club. Every Saturday, people like Jackie trek up to 54th Street to the Farm to Kitchen warehouse to pick up their boxes of fruits, veggies and greens. You can sign up at ali@farmtokitchenmiami.com. Each week, FTK compiles small ($35), medium ($45), large ($55) and extra large ($75) boxes of goodies for families to cook with at home. FTK also offers great add-ons, like chicken and duck eggs, raw local goat’s milk, and avocado honey. The FTK Buying Club was created to soothe frustrated chefs. On his deliveries, Chris had encountered so many chefs who got great produce in the restaurants and yet cooked with lesser products at home. So, Chis started delivering personalized boxes of produce to the chefs with their regular deliveries. When Chris and Ali cook at home, they use ingredients from the farms and their garden, so they believed that if better products were available — more families would want to cook with these great ingredients too.  The Farm to Kitchen Buying Club was born. Now, you can see Chris & Ali every Saturday when you pick up your box of goodies and enjoy the freshest, local ingredients Florida has to offer. Thank you Chris & Farm to Kitchen!  For up-to-date information on our go-to food sources for the restaurants visit our Sourcing pages.

Thank you Chris, Ali, Verde Gardens, Teena's Pride, Knaus Berry Farms, Corona Farms and Bee Haven Farms!

Thank you Chris, Ali, Verde Gardens, Teena’s Pride, Knaus Berry Farms, Corona Farms and Bee Haven Farm!

 

Fall Field Report: Foraging Homestead with Chris Padin & Chef de Cuisine Bradley Herron

Chris, Brad and I on the road in The Redland, an agricultural community about 20 miles or 45 minutes southwest of the restaurant and Downtown Miami, i.e. our local farmland.

This past Friday was a farm day.  It was 11 in the morning when I rendezvoused with our forager Chris Padin, for whom biweekly trips to The Redland in Homestead are the routine, and Chef de Cuisine Bradley Herron, who will have run the Miami MGFD kitchen for three years come November.   Actually it was a reconnaissance mission more than anything.  With the fall upon us and the start of our main growing season in South Florida, it was time for Bradley to check in with our local growers and see the crops first-hand, trade ideas on what we’d like to work on together in the coming months, and have the necessary face time that, as old school and time consuming as it may be, never fails to result in game changing revelations.  This is not always possible due to the demands of the kitchen… or the office.  But as Bradley had to remind me, when I was tempted by my To Do list to bail, “You gotta make the time or you’ll never go.”

Consequently, Friday was a big day in our little world.  Firstly, Michael Borek of Teena’s Pride Farm will begin packing our orders of his gorgeous tomatoes in reusable crates, rather than the farm’s branded cardboard boxes.  Less waste, less cost, and more tomatoes per unit, for which he will need to create a new SKU on his price list.  Borek will also now provide Bradley with his throwaway tomatoes, i.e. perfectly fine ones that might not pass muster with the packing house, but would find a warm welcome in the MGFD kitchen in beautiful sofrito, tomato sauce, or base for a wood oven skillet of, say, cobia with a toasted sourdough crostini and lemon aioli.  Tomatoes are hitting earlier than ever this season thanks to a new wet wall, a cooling system of cellulose pads installed along one side or in the end wall of the greenhouse. The pads are kept wet by a system of pumps and gutters that recirculate water. On the opposite end of the greenhouse is a series of fans to pull air through the greenhouse. As outside air passes through the pads, the water evaporates and as it does so it is cooled. This cool air is pulled across the greenhouse lowering the temperature inside. It aids in growing the tomatoes earlier in the season.  Without the wet walls Borek would just be planting now, and it would be January before we saw decent heirlooms!

Of course the day would not have been complete without a zinger or two.  What if I told you we out-buy Whole Foods Market stores in South Florida — in season, 800+ pounds of heirlooms, per week?  Boom.  Please enjoy the gallery below with little nuggets from Borek and other stops made along the way, and check out our Flickr for the full set of pictures. Lots more to come in the coming weeks as the menu reflects the arrival of all these new ingredients and more.