Kitchen Gardens at Vermont Restaurants

By Dirk Van Susteren

Tony DeVito’s pride and joy is the arugula growing in raised beds behind Trattoria La Festa (www.trattoriastowe.com), the restaurant he co-owns in Stowe. On afternoons from late April to early November, he will step from the kitchen door, and with scissors and stainless steel bowl, will gather the fragrant greens for salads or pesto, or maybe for the peppery enhancements of grilled white pizza or crabmeat ravioli.

The seeds for his arugula come all the way from Italy. Each spring, when Tony’s father, 86, visits Vermont, he brings thousands of seeds in pouches, bought at a shop in the family’s hometown of Aprilia, on the Mediterranean, just south of Rome.

At Trattoria La Festa, it’s hard to miss the produce. The arugula beds are out back, surrounded by a stockade fence, but in the front yard of the farmhouse restaurant on the Mountain Road that leads to Stowe’s famous ski resort, are flower gardens, patches of herbs, and pots of peppers. The restaurant porch is adorned with tiny Christmas lights, hurricane lanterns and, of course, tomatoes. They hang upside down from covered tomato planters suspended from the ceiling. “It’s a hydroponic concept,” explains DeVito, who occasionally plucks a ripened tomato from a vine and, with a little basil, packs a small going-away present for an appreciative guest. 

“Eating from the garden is part of our genetic makeup,” says Tony, who runs the restaurant with his brother, Giancarlo, the wine steward, and Tony’s partner, Patricia Hammer, who designs the restaurant gardens. “We grew up with a passion for growing things ourselves,” says DeVito. “In southern Europe, everyone lives by the seasons.”

Trattoria La Festa and many other restaurants are making the most of Vermont's growing season. Gardens are sprouting up at restaurants of all kinds across the state. Some restaurateurs, including DeVito, have found that growing produce can help contain costs, but mostly they do it because produce tastes best when nurtured and fresh picked. 

“It’s a huge trend in (Vermont) restaurants,” says Tom Brooks, Director of Food and Beverage at The Essex, Vermont's Culinary Resort and Spa (www.vtculinaryresort.com). Brooks says the effort is a manifestation of the “localvore” movement, with its emphasis on the health and environmental benefits of eating locally produced, organic foods. The resort, just outside Burlington, has two gardens – herb and vegetable – and an orchard with apple, plum, and pear trees; grape vines; and patches of strawberries, raspberries and black currants.

“Our desire here is to be a culinary destination and to foster the idea that it’s best when people know where their food comes from,” says Brooks. He said The Essex, within its restaurant and teaching kitchens, relies heavily on local cheeses and meats, and on the produce from its own gardens, carefully tended to by a garden staff.

“It’s common sense: Who wouldn’t want to use the freshest and nicest product you can get your hands on!” exclaims Dave Merrill, Executive Chef of Basin Harbor Club (www.basinharbor.com), the elegant and historic resort in Vergennes on Lake Champlain.

Chef Merrill reports that Basin Harbor has two herb gardens: one is a 10-by-10-foot rectangular bed; the other is a much larger landscape of serpentine paths through forests of thyme, rosemary, basil, parsley, sorrel, sage, chives and mint.   

In Brandon at Café Provence (cafeprovencevt.com), Chef and Owner Robert Barral considers his gardens, terraced and augmented by edible flowers, a centerpiece. He says he often sees a guest step from his or her car and immediately grab a camera. Barral says diners seem enthralled by his varieties of tomatoes, the lavender, tarragon and other herbs, the corn and sunflowers, and even the artichokes. Occasionally, he says, he sees someone pilfer a cherry tomato. He says he views that as compliment, not larceny.

The gardens provide diners with topics of conversation over wine and dinner at the café, or later at home.  “Lots of restaurants make their names by making or growing their own products,” Barral says.

A chef who for years taught at New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Barral now offers classes in classic French cooking at Café Provence. He says the gardens are laboratories for his students.

At Ariel’s Restaurant (www.arielsrestaurant.com) in Brookfield, owner Richard Fink advises that a restaurateur considering a garden must, above all, have perseverance. The yard must be open to sun but need not be spacious. A few raised, well managed beds will do. “We have a bed with heirloom varieties of tomatoes and another with hot peppers,” says Fink. His wife, chef Lee Duberman, has a patch of edible flowers, nasturtiums and johnny jump-ups, for garnishes.

At the Chelsea Royal Diner (www.chelsearoyaldiner.com) in West Brattleboro, owner Todd Darrah says his garden and chicken coop with 50 laying hens (think omelets, French toast, and egg salad!) have at times helped him manage costs. In fact, he began gardening at the diner a decade ago to combat skyrocketing lettuce prices. Now, he also grows Brussels sprouts, beans, chard, cauliflower, eggplant...you name it! “We offer ratatouille almost all summer long,” he says proudly. “We had been buying pesto, but that got into big money,” he says. Now he grows and freezes 85 pounds of homemade pesto for pasta and pizza.

Darrah says customers appreciate produce grown locally and organically. “We offer healthy choices, but we still have our meatloaf and gravy,” admits Darrah, whose 1938 diner features comfortable booths, a marble counter top, and a jukebox.

Vermont is certainly ripe for the picking when it comes to taking your pick at a restaurant. With all of the opportunities to dine on fresh, homegrown produce, and to see, smell and taste the garden, Vermont's summer and fall dining experience will delight all your senses. Taste the gardens of eatin'!

Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais, Vermont, freelance writer and editor.