You might have a scallion, shooting out of its bulb, sitting in your windowsill. Or a stalk of romaine, stretching up and away from its leafy base, waiting to be plucked. The coronavirus pandemic and widespread stay at home orders saw our ideas about kitchens, and our practices of feeding ourselves take new shape, much of it couched in self-sufficiency. As we eke into the fifth month spent relatively homebound, the team at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is developing an even more comprehensive way to grow at home.
When COVID-19 hit, like many restaurants across the country, Blue Hill at Stone Barns was forced to let go of a majority of their employees. Located an hour north of New York City, the restaurant and the farmland upon which it sits were suddenly, uncharacteristically empty. Chef Dan Barber and Jack Algiere, the Stone Barns farm director, considered their now-jobless cooks, starting with a guiding inquiry: “What would it look like if out-of-work cooks around the world dug in and built a garden?” Thus, the The Kitchen Farming Project, was born: An online curriculum for first-time gardeners wanting to plant, harvest, and cook all their own food at home.
With the help of Algiere, three Blue Hill cooks—Pruitt Kerdchoochuen, Bronson Petti, and Chuan-Chieh Chang—broke ground on their own gardens. “You have a bunch of cooks who used to spend most of their time with their eyesight at cutting-board level, all of a sudden on the farm to help out with the season to come,” Kerdchoochuen tells me over the phone. Prior to this project Kerdchoochuen says that she and the other chefs would spend a couple hours a week on the farm tending vegetables, yet most of their work was confined to the kitchen.
Since the start of the project, she’s broken ground on her own vegetable garden, coordinated what produce she wants to grow, planted seeds, and even begun to harvest and cook with the earliest round of bounty. Though she’s spent years working in professional kitchens, she says working through the literal cycle of farm to table on her own has altered her perception: “For a lot of cooks, especially in this generation or sub-genre of the industry where we really care [and know] about the food system as a whole...it’s different to actually be involved with it on a day to day. For me this project is about taking all that theory and putting it into practice.”
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Another bit of garden housekeeping! Built a twine ladder to coax the cukes upwards instead of outwards. In addition to keeping the plants more contained, this little mod also makes the cukes easier to harvest as well. #resourcED #kitchenfarmingproject #cucumbers #gardening #quarantinegardening #upgrades #summervibes @bluehillfarm @stonebarns
A post shared by Pruitt Kerdchoochuen (@needsmorebutter) on
Initially, as Algiere worked with Kerdchoochuen, Petti, and Chang, he developed something of a recipe format for building and maintaining their gardens, a way of talking to the cooks in their own language. He established enough of a scaffolding that any participant could take and apply it consistently. Say you want more tomatoes? Go for it. Or sub out this bit of land for a few extra leafy greens? All yours. Ultimately, he made sure his system prioritized soil health and a productive garden for the entire season. The chefs realized they’d developed a system that could benefit those beyond the confines of the Stone Barns campus.
Not only does the initiative see their three chefs building a garden from start to finish, but also invites anyone—chefs, home cooks, or beginners—worldwide to join in and gain access to their expertise, advice and guidance. Anyone can sign up online or follow the various participants via the associated Instagram hashtag.
Within a couple weeks, 2,000 cooks around the world had joined—and now, that number now sits somewhere around 3,200. The Kitchen Farming Project doesn’t claim to be the first of its kind to encourage people to cook at home, nor the first to encourage people to grow their own produce where and when they can. What is distinctive is its approach: using the lens of a cooking perspective to make a connection between farming, agriculture, and culinary application.
They’ve added information for container gardening for those who might not have the luxury of space, along with tips for other urban farmers. By registering online, farmers the world over can access the Algiere's expertise, along with the know-how of the rest of the Stone Barns farmers, regardless of what produce might currently be in rotation. A few weeks ago a farmer in Colombia called in about orange seeds with questions about their growth.
Gervis Casanova, a cook in Cologne, Germany, was thinking about planting some of his own food in his backyard when he heard about the project on Instagram. “When I was reading a little more about the project I saw that they help you with different methods to organize and create a garden. I think it's a very good idea because when food is grown in an ecological way, it helps with a better diet and to collaborate with the environment,” he said. He is currently growing beets, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, celery, kohlrabi, and blueberries.
“One thing I didn't expect was how much gardening would be a way to connect with people… One of the biggest challenges of quarantine mode is feeling like you've been disconnected from your community and all the people around you,” Kerdchoochuen, who herself has been growing lettuces, hot peppers, cucumbers, and summer squash, said. While in the garden she found a way to pass newfound free time, through the initiative’s extensive network, she discovered something larger: “I’m now plugged in to a community of gardeners.... We share tips about what we’re growing, like’“I have this bug! What are you doing about it? What varieties are you growing? What are you growing for the winter?’ ”
The team at Blue Hill recently rebooted their information for the upcoming post-solstice succession. Now is a good time to jump in. The guide comes with instructions on how to set up a raised garden, what to plant in each section, how to properly rotate your crops, and information about what crops grow best next to others.
The restaurant, like so many others, continues to stay closed. So for now, Kerdchoochuen will stay tending her garden. Her tomatoes are just starting to ripen and she’s beginning to collect her second harvest of sturdy greens. And while the future may remain uncertain, her garden doesn’t have to. “I know that at the very least a couple months from now I will still be harvesting stuff from this garden. Having that sense of certainty and the ability to plan for some aspect of the future is very soothing when everything else in the world is so touch and go.”