What do you do with tons of leftover melons? Add grilled watermelon salad, cold cantaloupe soup and casaba gazpacho to the menu.
Such is the sort of dilemmas facing High Hand’s unique farm-restaurant balancing act.
Last weekend, about 1,800 patrons tasted more than 40 varieties of heirloom melons during High Hand’s first Melon Mania at Maple Rock Gardens in Penryn. On Monday, the extra melons came rolling into the High Hand Conservatory kitchen in nearby Loomis.
“We’ve still got boatloads of melons,” said farmer Jakob Stevens as he hauled 40-pound Kolb’s Gem watermelons into High Hand. He soon formed a mountain of gigantic watermelons, waiting for kitchen prep.
At Maple Rock, Stevens planted more than 2,000 melon vines. “About half of them are still growing,” he said. “Every watermelon (variety) is still coming.”
Melons had been on the menu for more than a month as many ripened well before the Aug. 23 festival. They’ll keep coming as long as the weather stays warm, likely until the end of September.
“We succession-planted, starting in April, because we didn’t know for sure when they would be ready,” said Scott Paris, who owns High Hand and Maple Rock. “We’re still learning.”
This is Paris’ vision of farm-to-fork: Connect the food dots as closely as possible.
As a test, Paris challenged his staff to see how fast they could get from Maple Rock field to High Hand table. “We did it in 45 minutes,” he said. “That’s our definition of farm to fork.”
When he launched this mission, Paris already owned a restaurant, the popular High Hand Conservatory at his destination High Hand Nursery in Loomis. As a longtime nurseryman, he knew a lot about growing things, but his expertise was ornamental landscaping, not food.
“I know dahlias, not melons,” Paris said. “To make the restaurant a success, I realized I had to be just as passionate about food as I was about plants.”
After buying Maple Rock Gardens four years ago, Paris had about 30 open acres of pasture – room for his own farm. His goal became to grow what his restaurant serves.
“People want to know where their food comes from,” Paris said. “As a nursery owner, I had a huge learning curve running the restaurant. And as a restaurant owner, I’ve had a huge learning curve with owning the farm. Although both are related, there’s a different dynamic, different timing and different cultures.”
Chefs are used to drawing up a menu and ordering ingredients off a grocery list, filled by a middle man working with local farms or markets. High Hand flipped that model with the farm’s harvest dictating what the kitchen will serve.
Last year, Paris and his small staff launched in earnest an effort to link the farm and restaurant together. What he discovered is the concept needs a very flexible kitchen staff willing to work with – and around – nature.
“Some of the struggles with having a farm is you’re asking a plant to be ready at a certain time,” Paris said. “You need that vegetable to peak when you want it, the kitchen to prepare it in a timely manner, then the customer to buy it and eat. You’re dictating to nature that it will provide all this on your schedule. Good luck!”
Paris remembers the pea avalanche this past winter when peas matured en masse. Instead of a steady trickle of green peas, they came into the Conservatory kitchen in 30-pound bushels. In a matter of days, hundreds of pounds of peas poured into the 170-seat restaurant, which is open only for lunch and weekend brunch.
“We made shrimp and pea omelets and lots of pea soup,” Paris said. “We went from pea salad to pea pie. We tried everything we could think of to use those peas. Whatever came out of the kitchen, you knew it would have peas in it.”
High Hand also has a Sunday farm stand as an outlet for some of its excess produce. What doesn’t get cooked or sold goes to a local food bank.
Other fruit and vegetables can be in short supply when the chef needs them most.
“Zucchini costs me at times $15 to $20 a pound just because of what it took to grow it,” Paris said. “This isn’t about saving money, although I thought we would. This is about passion.
“Sometimes, you close your eyes and don’t turn a profit, but focus on doing what you can do – showing people where their food comes from and how good it can be.”
Some crops worked out as planned. Because restaurants plow through onions, Paris grew more than a ton. After a late summer harvest, High Hand now is sitting on about 3,000 pounds of onions in cold storage.
“We also grew a lot of garlic,” Paris said. “It sounds very romantic to grow your own garlic, but it’s a lot of work to prepare (in the kitchen). It’s actually much cheaper – and way easier – to just buy the big jar of peeled cloves.”
Part of the challenge is time. Preparation has to fit into the rhythm of the kitchen production line. And fresh produce doesn’t like to wait around. It’s at its peak of flavor when picked.
“You can’t refrigerate heirloom tomatoes,” Paris said. “The sugars start changing (into starch); the whole flavor changes. It’s just not the same as fresh, so you can’t serve them.”
Maple Rock grew more than 50 varieties of tomatoes last year, Stevens said. That was too many.
“This year, we grew only 15 – the best ones,” he said.
Tomatoes come in waves, too. “We’ll get three crops this season,” Stevens said. “But there are times in between (harvests) when there aren’t that many.”
To fill in the gaps, High Hand relies on produce broker Jim Mills at Sacramento’s Produce Express. Using such local farms as Del Rio Botanical (which grows more than 150 crops in West Sacramento) or the 200-acre Riverdog Farm in Guinda, Produce Express supplies many local restaurants with organic fruit, vegetables and herbs.
“We still buy enough produce to fill a walk-in refrigerator every day,” Paris said.
But Maple Rock has been able to fill most of the kitchen’s requests.
“Right now, we’re serving our own winter squash, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, culinary lavender, corn, sunflowers, onions and lots of melons,” Paris said. “In the winter, we’ll have lettuce, radishes, greens, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and other cold-weather crops.”
The restaurant and farm have to be partners, Paris said. “This (approach) requires our staff to communicate. The farm can talk to the kitchen, tell them what’s coming, and the kitchen has to be prepared.”
“Weather and nature ultimately are in charge,” Paris said. “The kitchen has to be nimble. We have to stay on our toes. ... We’re working on nature’s time clock.”
Most days, Stevens works with lead cook Kat Wilson, who serves as “kitchen liaison” to the farm. At Paris’ suggestion, they go over flavor profiles and try to determine what will mix well with what. A lot of trial and taste tests went into the melon-heavy menu suggestions.
At High Hand, grilled watermelon has become very popular with wedges tucked into salads or served as a side dish. At first, Paris wondered how customers would accept these old-fashioned watermelons with big black seeds.
“What we found was people were grateful, even thankful, that we served real watermelon with seeds and not something tasteless that was bred for shelf life,” Paris said. “They love these melons.”
Sometimes, this approach comes up with real surprises. With its green flesh and fragrant scent, the Ogen or “pear melon” has become a High Hand hit.
Stevens’ personal favorite is High Hand’s heirloom tomato salad with roasted eggplant. “The tomatoes are sliced and layered with mozzarella, basil and eggplant with lemon balsamic vinaigrette, a little twist on the familiar caprese salad,” he said.
Paris figures it will take High Hand about three years to work out kinks in its farm-to-fork experiment. “It’s definitely challenging, but the rewards are definitely worth it,” he said. “At the end of the day, we hope it translates into a great experience for guests coming to High Hand.”