Manhattan Restaurant’s Rooftop Farm Provides all the Fresh Ingredients it Needs
October 15, 2012 | Roberta Cruger
Below New York City’s skyscrapers, 8-foot tall okra plants tower over an impressive array of vegetables, herbs and flowers growing on a rooftop farm situated just 100-feet from the kitchen of Riverpark Restaurant. Lunch and dinner menus state that meals are made with “produce grown right here at the Riverpark Farm.” In fact, the 15,000-square-foot urban farm on East 29th Street supplies 100 percent of the restaurant’s organic herbs, lettuce, and flowers.
“As chefs, we’re always looking for ways to get even closer to the source of our food, and growing our own produce right next to the restaurant is about as close as you can get,” says co-founder Sisha Ortúzar, the partner/chef of Riverpark Restaurant, owned by Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame and eateries such as Craft and ‘Wichcraft. It’s a model for urban gardeners that attracts visitors from Norway to Chile to Japan.
Among the numerous vegetable varieties grown at the urban farm, there are Cylindra Beets, Atomic Red Carrots, Goldmine Squash and Matchbox Peppers to name just a few. Other equally evocative names include Marvel of Venice beans, Black Prince tomatoes, and Bull’s Blood specialty greens. “We’re growing everything from heirloom tomatoes to melons, ground cherries, shishito peppers, lemon verbena, a half-dozen varieties of basil to beans, eggplant, artichokes, strawberries, and edible flowers,” explains Ortúzar who select the crops with the chef de cuisine and farm manager.
Zachary Pickens, the farm’s manager, describes collaborating with the restaurant chefs: “It’s great to be a part of their creative process—growing unique varieties of plants and vegetables to their ideal specifications. A lot of farmers don’t get to do that.” He notes the plants had to adjust to containers and an urban climate, but sees the upside of the Heat Island Effect of summer’s heat and humidity in New York City that surprisingly encouraged big yields with crops like okra. A Master Composter, Pickens has developed Rooftop Ready Seeds – seeds suited to New York City’s climate.
In planning the farm, the team of advisors including GrowNYC and ORE Technology + Design have integrated sustainable practices including composting to fertilize the soil with food waste, coffee grounds that supply nitrogen to the tomato plants and planting winter rye after the harvesting seasons.
“We used as many recycled and recyclable materials to build the farm as possible and are resourceful with found materials such as shipping pallets,” explains Ortuzar. “The use of a portable planter was paramount in development, so we decided on the milk-crate planter.” Easily available, the ready-made modular container was chosen for its versatile soil capacity, durability and stackability to efficiently use all valuable space and allow aeration and drainage. Lined with landscape fabric and filled with topsoil, peat moss, and perlite soil, the redesigned milk crate containers are lightweight, have handles, and are easy to rotate toward the sun.
Riverpark Farm was developed in a partnership with Alexandria Center for Life Science, a state-of-the-art research complex with a bioscience lab space, where Riverpark Restaurant is located, overlooking the East River. The farm spreads out across a temporarily “stalled” construction site— and currently pays no rental fee to use the space. Whenever Alexandria Center’s West Tower is erected, the containers’ mobility will ease the move of the 7,400 milk crates, hopefully to another part of the 4-acre campus.
All the fresh produce that is grown goes directly to the restaurant, but Riverpark Farm at Alexandria Center, as it’s officially called, also plays an active role in a number of local green-thumb communities, such as the Lower East Side Ecology interns, Eagle Rooftop Farm apprentices, elementary and high schools, and local colleges, and the Wellness in the Schools program.
Last year, Ortuzar also launched the Riverpark Farm Table, an outdoor dining experience for 12 guests who are treated to a house-made charcuterie, three-course menu served family-style in the midst of the garden. “We see a lot of surprised and excited faces as they walk up to the farm on the way to the restaurant,” says Pickens. After dining, patrons stop by to remark on how sweet the carrots tasted, to praise the lemon verbena ice cream, or ask about the varieties of lettuce. Salads these days could include Red Rib dandelion, Surrey arugula, red amaranth, and Ruby Streaks from the fall’s harvest.