Iron Chef Jose Garces Adds Sustainable, Organic Farm to His Resume
August 9, 2012 | Missy Smith
Philadelphia’s Iron Chef Jose Garces has opened yet another food venue. His seven Philadelphia and three Atlantic City restaurants, as well as his local taco truck, have garnered much acclaim and popularity. But, unlike his trendy urban restaurants, this endeavor comes with built-in décor provided by Mother Nature, natural lighting from the sun and beautiful produce growing out of the ground. Garces’ latest effort is a 40-acre, all-organic farm in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Garces started Luna Farm—located in Ottsville, Pa.—as not only a retreat for his family, but as a means of bringing the freshest organic vegetables, fruits, eggs and honey to the dishes offered at his East Coast restaurants, which feature American, Asian Fusion, Latin American, Mexican, Tapas and Vegetarian cuisines. Luna Farm also supports the Garces Family Foundation, which helps educate children about the benefits of sustainable agriculture, meal preparation and healthy eating.
“My family and I looked at a number of properties before we settled on this one,” says Garces. “We wanted something relatively close to Philadelphia, which is our permanent home, and we didn’t want to take on too large a property right off the bat. When we found this one, we knew it was the right place, and we set about making it our own right away, both working with our farm architect and farm manager to make over the land and rehabbing the centuries-old farmhouse into a residence, with a fully outfitted professional level kitchen, of course.”
Being a discerning chef and foodie, Garces wanted to start a farm where he could personally oversee what products are going into his culinary masterpieces. “Ultimately, growing ingredients at Luna Farm lends a level of quality control that I simply couldn’t find if someone else was preparing the products I plan to serve,” explains Garces. And, using organic produce was a no-brainer for the seasoned chef, who revels in using the best ingredients he can get his hands on. “I’ve always found that food that is produced mindfully tends to be superior in quality, and it is virtually impossible not to be mindful of what you’re growing when you adhere to organic practices,” he says. “As a result, I often choose organic produce, meat and fish over others. To my mind, it’s a question of choosing the finest possible ingredients as the building blocks for creating the best tasting dishes.”
And, to bring the finest ingredients to his plates, Garces has teamed up with a successful and well-known Bucks County organic farmer, Alex McCracken, who, along with his wife Jenn, owns The Turnip Truck—an organic kitchen gardening company, also based in Ottsville. A year ago, when McCracken caught wind that Garces had purchased the Luna Farm property, he did something that he had never been bold enough to do in the past: he e-mailed Garces directly to see if he could play a key role at Luna Farm.
“That was not something I would have done in my younger years, contacting him out of the blue,” McCracken reflects. “But it seems like all of my experience with gardening and my hard work up to this point has been preparing me for this.” After meeting a couple of times, the pair quickly formed a partnership.
“I am so excited to be here and to be a part of this. I’ve always thought of this kind of work as a real challenge. There’s always something new coming down the pike as far as new varieties,” says McCracken. “Talking to all of Jose’s chefs has been very enlightening too. They all have different backgrounds and specialties, and I’ve learned something new from each one of them: how they want produce harvested, and what produce they want or don’t want.” He even started growing white strawberries at the request of one of Garces’ chefs, who had learned about them in France.
And, Garces is just as pleased with their arrangement. “My family and I enjoy spending our weekends at Luna Farm, and it would be impossible to be there without interacting with Alex, who is a wonderfully devoted and very passionate farm manager,” he says. “Together, he and I are continuously coming up with new ways to improve the farm and to make it more useful for both of its purposes: producing edibles for the restaurants and offering a respite for me and my family.”
McCracken says the farm crew—consisting of three full-time employees and a small group of volunteers—is growing more than 20 varieties of tomatoes and peppers, as well as a lot of tomatillos. Also being produced at the farm are about seven varieties of eggplants, five varieties of melons (including heirloom watermelons), sweet corn, many varieties of squash, a couple types of beans, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips and sunchokes. Once the weather cools off, the farm will switch back to growing lettuces, baby spinach and arugula, says McCracken. “For our first year, we are trying large quantities of staple crops and we are trying a lot of different things to see what will do well here,” McCracken explains.
With the seasonal nature of operating a farm, Garces is utilizing only the freshest produce year round. “Our menus at some restaurants are more seasonal than others, but all of them capitalize on what’s fresh in order to offer our guests the best experience throughout the year,” explains Garces. “Dishes such as our heirloom tomato gazpacho at Amada are summertime staples, while Tinto’s chestnut soup appears each winter.”
The Iron Chef particularly enjoys using fresh herbs in his dishes. “Their potency can completely transform a dish and they bring life to foods without contributing tons of fat or other unhealthy additives,” he says. Not only does Garces have health and flavor in mind, but he is very conscious to be as sustainable as possible in his new green endeavor.
“We employ a number of sustainable practices, from recycling fryer oil from the restaurants into bio-diesel to power the farm’s tractor to capturing rainwater for irrigation to raising honeybees, an endangered population that also offers us natural pollination for our crops,” explains Garces. “Everything about the farm has been deliberate, because we effectively started from scratch, and whenever possible we have opted to ‘green’ the operation and in turn carry over that approach to the restaurants. Even the process of delivering produce is part of the cycle; our truck drops off the fresh fruits and veggies and picks up the oil we’ll recycle back at the farm, as well as compost that enriches the fields.”
“We’re always looking for new ways to ‘green’ the operation, and our existing environmental initiatives are always expanding. Our greenhouses are solar, which means they require very little energy and can maintain our delicate herbs and micro-greens throughout the winter. Most important, perhaps, are the steps we’re taking to ‘feed the soil,’ rather than feeding the plants, which improves the quality of the soil and fosters an environment where plants will thrive because of the inherent conditions of the farm. It’s what will make this property valuable and effective for many, many growing seasons to come.”
To keep insects under control, Luna Farm uses neem oil. “It isn’t 100 percent effective,” explains McCracken, “but it does a pretty good job of keeping the insect numbers down.” And, so far this year, the farm crew hasn’t sprayed anything with a fungicide, and instead are using cultural methods, such as staking up tomato plants and keeping peppers in tomato cages, while using photodegradable black plastic, which also helps to keep pests away.
Luna Farm will continue to harvest fresh food during the winter. “We are using several hoop houses that are unheated, that simply get their warmth from the sun,” McCracken says, explaining that they utilize organic pioneer Elliott Goldman’s technique of growing under a double cover inside a larger hoop house. “We did a lot of that last winter, which kept the air temperature inside of the cover about 20 degrees warmer.”
For Garces, operating Luna Farm has been quite the achievement in offering his customers the best possible dining experience, as well as in contributing to the sustainable, local movement. “This is land that had gone to seed, land that was not properly cared for. Today, it produces all kinds of edibles, and it is also a beautiful and peaceful retreat for my wife, my children and me,” he explains. “Of course, we’ve initiated a number of environmentally friendly programs here, as well, but to my mind those are in the service of making this place as functional as it can be in producing exceptional food. It has been very exciting to watch it flourish from an abandoned piece of farmland into a living, breathing place complete with fruit trees, herb gardens, and even a ‘wild’ foraging trail through the woods where I can wander and pick ingredients right off the plants around me. Luna Farm is a source of inspiration for me.”