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!

 

Northern Exposure | Growing Season Update with Farm to Kitchen

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Padin out back of Farm to Kitchen’s new distribution center in Little Haiti.

Sure enough, blue graffiti above an open, barred gate marked the spot. A fitting tag for the entrance to Farm to Kitchen’s brand new — and I mean new-car-smell-new — warehouse facility in Little Haiti. Chris Padin found the unassuming location on 54th street just east of North Miami Avenue through a friend and chose it over one to the north in Oakland Park.  Mere minutes from the Design District and central to his farm runs and customer routes, the decision was a smart one.

“People get lost with the unmarked door,” he explained, as I made my way for an early evening visit last week as we were both wrapping up business for the day.  “It’s next to the Western Union.”

Whether or not people can find him is beside the point. As the owner/operator of a local distribution company specializing in produce from small family farms, Padin’s job is to find them.  This season is a special one for him and partner Aleli Lauria. From her seeds first sewn at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink leading the reservations department and gardening at home on the side have sprouted some four years later a solid business, connecting a handful of South Florida restaurants with its best and brightest small farmers.

This latest move is a game changer for Farm to Kitchen, effectively doubling its capacity and reach to receive product from suppliers like Worden Farm in Punta Gorda. Customers can still expect their usual day-of or day-after harvest delivery.  Padin has also hired longtime MGFD busser Christopher Caballero who staged with him last season as a part time delivery driver. Padin will continue to focus on growing the business, making farm runs and forging relationships with growers.  On my visit bathroom renovation work was in full swing and the first ingredients – like a box of blue oyster mushrooms from Sublicious Farms – were in the new walk-in cooler. They took over the space a month ago and share it with another local start-up, Jucy Lu’s, which figures into the plan. Farm to Kitchen‘s farm share program will soon offer a selection of cold-pressed, organic juices produced out of the facility using the same fresh ingredients Padin sources for the wholesale side of the business.

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The next day it was time to get down to business to meet some of the newer customers to the Farm to Kitchen portfolio and consequently, to our genuine kitchens. We know and love many familiar faces down south, so naturally we set our sites north to meet some new ones, namely Harpke Family Farm in Dania Beach, specializing in fruits, vegetables and microgreens and Sublicious Farms in Oakland Park, producer of high quality organic mushrooms.  Padin was on one of his twice-weekly farm runs, and Harry’s Pizzeria chef Danny Ramirez and I were along for the ride.

“They’re cute but I’m trying to run a business here,” said Tamer Harpke, as siblings Chica and Pedro gave us a warm welcome to Harpke Family Farm’s 1 acre plot right off I-95.  “We want to roll with 4 or 5 key accounts.  We are looking for distribution with key chefs that want to work with the product and are committed. We’re developing a mix that at lets us service fine dining while at the same time trying to service the CSA community.”

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A cluster of Sublicious Farm’s blue oyster mushrooms in the “pin” stage. So cute!

Padin is in lockstep with this approach, which is key for this relationship to function properly. “The thing that I look for is the consistency of supply. Without that, I have go out and look for it elsewhere, or for something else. Tamer is a step ahead. He has an idea of what restaurants are looking for to begin with, which makes our job a lot easier.”

Only a short walk through the property and it was clear his supply is well on its way, including mature-at-harvest greens like mustard, lime mizuna and lacinato kale, radishes including French breakfast, and micro herbs and greens of all kinds like opal basil, amaranth and carrot. If his back-from-the-dead rows of dragonfruit are any indication, this first season is going to be a good start for this 6 month old operation.  Just watch out for falling coconuts.

“We’ll be doing tomatoes. Everybody wants tomatoes,” Harpke explained.  “I’ve been growing them since I was young.  It’s not easy to grow in an outdoor format but if you prune them and treat them like your babies you can get a lot of fruit out of them. We’ll be looking at a greenhouse and hydroponics in the future.”

Check out what’s in store for their CSA and farm credit program at Harpke’s open house on November 9 where there will also be a “keg of beer and maybe some wine!”

Our second and last stop before seeing Padin off to Homestead for the afternoon was Sublicious Farms, an experience far from the familiar.  I don’t think I’ll forget the first time I walked into a “fruiting chamber”!  Scott Lyons, a University of Florida alum, grows blue oyster mushrooms through a compost and hanging bag system that is rotated in a temperature and humidity-controlled walk-in cooler.

“They like it cool, 65 degrees, 95 percent humidity,” Lyons explained. “From the pin stage, it’s just 3 to 5 days until harvest. We can produce 150-200 pounds a week from this one chamber at full capacity.”

The process begins in the back of his warehouse by processing “mushroom spawn” from rye berry that is sterilized and inoculated with mycelium.  Spooky enough for Halloween, the spawn grows into something one might find in their refrigerator and deem fit for chucking. After that it’s mixed with compost to make the perfect growing material for beautiful mushrooms! They sell product online at all stages of production for budding shroomers to home gardeners in search of great substrate.  Or in MGFD chef de cuisine Niven Patel‘s case, home farmers! Next for Sublicious is working with converted shipping containers for a property up in Delray. A fruitful future seems imminent.

For more information on our suppliers from Farm to Kitchen’s customers and beyond, visit our Sourcing page.

A Day of Foraging

Ella Schwartz joins us this summer for three weeks as brand intern. She’ll be a senior at Ransom Everglades in the fall, rows crew and studies photography. Follow her on Instagram @ellaschwartzz and stay glued to our company handles where she’ll also be contributing during her stay with us.

Last week I joined The Genuine Hospitality Group’s forager Chris Padin of Farm to Kitchen on one of his twice weekly farm runs to Homestead and got to see where all of our local produce comes from.  Summer was in full bloom, ripe for the picking.  See my trip in pictures below, shot with the brand department’s Canon 5D Mark II and fixed 100 mm macro lens, some of which now grace HQ’s homepage rotation at michaelsgenuine.com.

Sharing is Caring: Farm to Kitchen Brings the Farm to Miami

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About six months ago, Jackie told you to Follow the Forager, and we hope you have been. We certainly have, as Chris Padin and his Farm to Kitchen local product distribution service delivers the best of South Florida’s farms to our restaurants’ doorsteps and our feeds online.  We always love what we see.  But turns out the best is yet to come, as I observed one day a few weeks ago in the genuine neighborhood.  Chris isn’t just foraging for us and other local restaurants anymore, he’s foraging for all of Miami in what seems to be a new co-op with a choice.

Starting with South Florida’s next growing season, beginning in early October, Farm to Kitchen will be offering farm share boxes of greens and seasonal vegetables and fruit at drop off locations around Miami. For $30-$55 you can choose what size box you’d like and choose to exclude any flavors that you don’t.

I watched as Chris kindly catered MGFD server Danielle Masseria’s weekly box to her likings.

“You want radishes?”
“No I can’t eat radishes.”
“Beets?”
“I love beets! These are perfect for juicing.”
“Mint?”
“Yes, please.”
“We have some pineapple mint.”

And so it went.  Danielle took home oyster mushrooms, long beans, kale, pineapple mint, peaches, eggplant, mangos, and beets, and left the zucchini and radishes for the next stop. Chris was headed over the the Raleigh to deliver a box to our beachside team. We’re happy to be the beta testers, and can’t wait until the farms start up again next fall and this service will be available to you too.

If you’d like to get on the list already so that you can be the first to be advised when product will be available, and to be sure it’ll be available in your area, please reach Chris at info@farmtokitchenmiami.com or (786) 246-9815. Until then stay tuned to @farmtokitchen to see what local flavors are popping up at all the Genuine kitchens.