Establishing this kitchen garden is without doubt the hardest thing we have ever done. Running a restaurant with rooms seven days a week is a challenge but coupling that with what is now 5 acres of vegetables, fruits and herbs to look after is at times overwhelming. I am often asked if the project has been successful. Measuring the success of the garden is difficult, whilst I am delighted with the amazing produce, the work is becoming relentless. The decision to try and grow everything using just restaurant staff was always a bold one but one I am determined to stick to. I have no interest in employing someone to grow produce and deliver it to the door. Where is the romance in that? When a guy has nurtured a plant for months and then has the honour to harvest it and serve the fruits of his labour to a guest that is when true respect for an ingredient is gained. The addition of two new Front of House staff (Alan and Iona) who work the field by day and the restaurant by night has helped share the workload. I think its great that your waiter has played a part in growing your dinner and it helps to deliver the full field to fork experience to the guests.
Growing anything provides challenges that must be overcome if you are to have a successful harvest and we have had to learn some things the hard way. Pigeons have been a real thorn in our side. Imagine sowing thousands of brassicas, watching them germinate, watering them twice a day for 8 weeks until they are nice little plants and then painstakingly planting each one by hand. Only to return the following morning to see the whole crop devoured by pigeons. In only a couple of hours these pests can decimate whole crops and leave you with nothing. The frustration and anger led me to deliver a Gladiatoresque speech about claiming vengeance on the pigeon. I guarantee this winter an ironic dish of ‘Pigeon and Brassicas’ will feature on the menu. I will have my vengeance. With some help from Ken and his guys all the brassicas have been replanted and covered in a fleece to protect them until they are big enough for the pigeons not to bother with them.
Two chefs in particular, my Sous Chef James and Ryan, our newest recruit, have been instrumental in keeping things going. Their work ethic has been inspirational, midnight watering has become a staple of Black Swan life. It is not a good idea to water plants during the day when the sun is shining as you risk scorching the leaves. A lot of gardeners will water in the evenings but of course we are busy in the kitchen then. So after the kitchen is shut down we trudge round the back and begin our extensive watering mission in the dark. Usually with hilarious consequences, you can guarantee at some point James, with beer in hand, will ‘honestly accidentally’ soak Ryan.
With all the daily tribulations also comes a lot of success. We have amazing produce and I am constantly blown away by the flavours of vegetables when they are pulled straight from the ground. We have 16 large raised beds growing baby vegetables that are successively replanted. The system works really well and we are already on our third sowing of radishes this year. Baby turnips, radishes, fennel, carrots, kale and beetroot are all on the menu now. The Maris Bard potatoes are without doubt the best new potatoes I have ever eaten. You can keep your Jersey Royals – these Maris Bard are something else! Unbelievably sweet and the skins so soft that they just wash off. I could eat a bucket load of them!
Even though it is what you might expect when you walk into a tunnel of Heirloom tomatoes you are Knocked out by the incredibly strong smell of real tomatoes. We should soon have some to play with and comparing them will be interesting they certainly have weirdly different growing habits. The Gariguette strawberries which were planted with bare roots hardly two months ago are now covered in fruit so it’s time to put the nets on. Courgettes are setting fruit too – it’s starting to feel like summer.
Ken has always been keen for me to do a ‘salad’ or Vegetable’ dish. A dish just using the best ingredients available. It’s a good idea but I have always dismissed it. I have seen and eaten similar dishes in other restaurants. What we are doing in the garden is original and in some aspects ground breaking and I want the food to follow suit. This idea has wrangled with me for a while though maybe Ken is right? A dish that represents the young vegetables that we are harvesting now. The flavour and juicy crunch you get from a just harvested Paris Market carrot is unbelievable and unachievable unless you have beds full of them. So I have decided to showcase them in a dish early in the menu called ‘young vegetables’. Where is the originality? Every day the ingredients are picked at 17.30 and we start serving them at 18.00. The vegetables are alive, juicy, floral and sweet! Maybe the dish is not entirely original but the freshness of the produce is unique.
Growing our own has become the DNA of the Black Swan it has totally changed the way we approach our cooking. The ingredients are the stars of the show and I look forward to showcasing our summer produce.