For more than 30 years, The Chef’s Garden, a 350-acre sustainable family farm in Huron, Ohio, has supplied many of the nation’s top restaurants with the finest specialty vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers. As restaurants reopen throughout the nation, Santé Magazine checked in with Farmer Lee Jones, who is well-known in culinary circles for his trademark overalls and red bowtie. Jones launched The Chef’s Garden with his father, Bob Jones, Sr., and brother, Bob, Jr. in 1984.
Santé Magazine: What inspired the idea of The Chef’s Garden?
FLJ: It all started with a squash blossom. Before the Chef’s Garden was a concept, I was approached by a chef named Iris Bailin who had been classically trained in France and worked in Europe. After taking a look at our offerings from the farm, she asked if we could sell her the blossoms that grew on our squash. Bailin taught us to “grow with integrity and grow for the flavor without chemicals, and the chefs will find you.”
At the time we had been struggling with the challenges many family farmers face with the competition of mass production and high interest rates. In 1983, we were hit with a hailstorm that destroyed our crops. Fortunately, we are located in an amazing micro-climate 2.9 miles from Lake Erie and blessed with 11,000- year-old rich, sandy loam soil. So, we started over with renewed focus.
Santé Magazine: And the chefs did come.
FLJ: Yes, so many well-known and respected chefs become customers; it is hard to just single a few out! The Chef’s Garden’s focus for the past 30+ years has been to take care of the chefs, who have taught us so much throughout the years. We are forever grateful for their insights and creativity.
Santé Magazine: The Chef’s Garden’s reputation was built around quality and sustainable farming. What can you tell us?
FLJ: We have 350 acres. Two- thirds are sitting fallow in any one year to work in harmony with nature, harvesting the sun’s energy. We conduct lab analysis to find out what nutrients are deficient in the soil and then we plant specific cover crops to help regenerate the soil. It is a practice that isn’t new, but it has been abandoned for many years. We’ve gone back to the way our great grandparents used to farm.
Santé Magazine: The Chefs Garden’s is well-known for putting the needs of its chef clientele first. How did you cope during the COVID-19 pandemic when restaurants were shut down?
FLJ: When the March 2020 shutdown happened, we lost almost all of our customer base which was restaurants. It felt like the 1980s all over again. All of our team members felt the urgency to keep things going, You can’t just put a farm on furlough. You can’t just turn the light off and come back in a few months. She needs to be nurtured and loved. It is an intimate relationship.
One pivot was to provide healthy vegetable boxes for the home cook. This has been an amazing gift to the farm, and we will continue selling direct-to-consumers as it provides people with a healthy option year-round. It also follows our core values.
We have been researching the health and integrity in our vegetables for years. We
Santé Magazine: Now that restaurants have been reopening, how are things going?
FLJ: During the pandemic shutdown, we had amazing support from our chef friends. For example, Chef Thomas Keller created Small Farms Provisions, working with us and Pure Bred Lamb to provide provision boxes featuring vegetables and protein for home kitchens. We are grateful for everyone’s support during this challenging time.
Now that restaurants are recovering, we will continue to adapt and change with the current needs, and as always be their biggest cheerleader.
Santé Magazine: You also published a cookbook this year, appropriately named, “The Chef’s Garden.”
FLJ: “The Chef’s Garden “ cookbook provides readers with a wealth of information on how to select, prepare and cook a range of vegetables. It brings all the knowledge we have amassed as farmers into 600 entries with 125 recipes developed by Jamie Simpson, the Executive Chef for The Chef’s Garden’s Culinary Vegetable Institute, our educational initiative here in Milan, Ohio. Chef José Andrés wrote the forward, and the talented Kirstin Donnelly was my writing collaborator.
Santé Magazine: Your father, Bob Jones, Sr. shaped The Chef’s Garden’s regenerative farming vision. He passed away on August 4, 2020. Our deepest condolences. What can you tell us about him?
FLJ: (Dad) Bob Jones, Sr. always had a pioneering spirit and from his very first days as a farmer more than 50 years ago. He was constantly looking for ways to innovate. The farm has its own cutting-edge Agricultural Research facility, which was the brainchild of Bob, Sr. Through our research, we confirmed that our vegetables have 300 to 600 percent more nutrients than the USDA baseline—results that have been independently verified.
Our family and our farm family continue to follow his guidance of growing vegetables slowly and gently in full accord with nature.
Would you leave us with a few words of wisdom your father shared with you?
FLJ: The best fertilizer in the world is the footsteps of the grower.