Cultivating a Culinary Garden

By | April 12th, 2017

Club chefs are taking the “farm-to-table” movement one step closer by growing fruits, herbs and vegetables on property.

When clubs grow their own ingredients, it’s pretty much guaranteed that an outstanding dish isn’t far behind.

That’s certainly the case at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club, where Executive Chef Michael Ponzio asked for a garden shortly after he came to the club four years ago. Lucky for him, when Robert Sereci was appointed General Manager in 2015, his desire to build an on-property chicken coop aligned with Ponzio’s dream for a chef’s garden. The two began working closely on a plan that quickly came to fruition.

“We teamed up with engineering and found that one of the women in that department, Heather Martinello, has extensive gardening knowledge,” says Ponzio. “We built a 240-sq. ft. chicken coop that now houses 40 chickens, and then we built 25 raised beds in the area around the coop. Heather helped us design the beds and lay out which crops would do well together, and we began growing soon after.”

All in, Medinah’s “Meacham’s Garden,” honoring the Meacham family that owned the local land back in the 1800s, is approximately 900 square feet and home to more than 57 different products, including roughly 17 herbs, 34 fruits and vegetables, and six varieties of edible flowers.

“We’re fortunate to be able to start many of our plants from seeds,” adds Ponzio, who notes that the success of each plant is still highly weather-dependent as it grows. “We built a space to become USDA-certified for our eggs, and we are able to use that building as a nursery.”

Medinah (Ill.) Country Club’s Executive Chef, Michael Ponzio

While not certified organic, Medinah follows holistic and natural gardening practices in all 25 beds.

“The garden has been useful in a lot of different ways,” says Ponzio. “Members can go out there with a cup of coffee and see what we’re growing. They can even sit down and enjoy the quiet. The kitchen has benefited from the influx of fresh, seasonal ingredients, and our culinary team has the unique opportunity to bring ingredients from seed to table.”

Ponzio and his cooks harvest the crops and use them in a variety of menus and dishes throughout the property. In the Oasis, the club’s casual dining space (which is currently undergoing a renovation that will add a dedicated kitchen), Ponzio features the ingredients in an ever-changing garden menu.

Items from the garden also find their way to Medinah’s two other dining spaces and the club’s food truck, and even into banquets. “Banquets are a great way to use product that we might not have a place for on the a la carte menu,” Ponzio notes.

“The biggest challenges for us are weather, critters and gauging how much product we’ll need and be able to use,” adds Ponzio, responsible for a $4.8 million dollar food and beverage operation at Medinah that serves 920 members, with a 50/50 split between banquet and a la carte.

Medinah has also started a composting program in the kitchen, to help create natural fertilizer for the gardens and minimize food waste.

All of these initiatives have helped to create new respect for fresh ingredients among Medinah’s culinary team and its members—so much so that Ponzio and Sereci plan to expand the garden further. They’re also introducing beehives, to help with pollination.

“We’re responsible for the foods we serve our members,” says Ponzio. “We owe it to them to provide the best quality and freshest ingredients.”

Starting Small

Woodland GC’s garden provides the club
with more than a dozen different herbs.

This spring, Woodland Golf Club in Auburndale, Mass., will enter the second year of developing its chef’s garden. Inspired by conversations with colleagues at C&RB’s 2016 Chef to Chef Conference in San Diego, Executive Chef Andrew LaHaye was able to work with the club’s superintendent and engineering department to construct an herb garden that features more than a dozen different plants.

“It cost the club about $1,500 to build the beds and run drip irrigation to make the garden self-sustaining,” says LaHaye. “We bought the plants and once they were in the ground there was very little upkeep, until it was time to harvest.”

In 2016 alone, the garden has paid for itself and then some. “We typically spend about $2,300 on herbs in the height of the season,” says LaHaye. “But instead of buying these products, we went out to the garden and picked them.”

Beyond the cost savings, the main purpose of the garden is to provide better, fresher-quality ingredients to members.

“The excitement from our members and our Board is encouraging,” says LaHaye, who uses the herbs in everything from dressings and marinades to sauces and cocktails. “It’s something they can see growing that then finds its way onto their plates or into their drinks.”

Fresh lavender, in particular, has been hugely popular with members; LaHaye uses it in a honey-lavender crème brûlée, as well as in cookies.

In the coming season, Woodland plans to add one or two more 4’-by-12’ raised beds near the two that have already been constructed; the new plots would be used to begin growing heirloom tomatoes, peppers and carrots, in addition to the herbs.

And much like Medinah, Woodland’s culinary team enjoys the daily opportunities to step outside into the sun to gather the best of what’s available.

“The garden has been good for all of us,” says LaHaye. “For the cooks, for the members and especially for the food.”

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