Best practices from The French Laundry’s culinary garden

Chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry is famous for its culinary garden, and the man behind the garden, Tucker Taylor, offered NRA Show 2011 attendees a tasty peek at the philosophy behind the garden, its purpose and, most importantly, what delicious produce it yields for The French Laundry chefs.

The goal of the garden is to educate chefs and the surrounding community. The plot originally was created and tended by The French Laundry chefs, and then Taylor, who formerly worked in finance, was brought on to plan the design. Taylor’s garden philosophy: “If you start with a good foundation, you will have healthy crops.” The better the crop, of course, the better the produce. Taylor developed a quadrant system that allows for crop rotation. Rotating crops is key for good soil, which will yield quality ingredients required by The French Laundry chefs — the overall goal of the garden.

Taylor offered a series of take-aways for chefs and restaurateurs considering creating a garden:

  • Producing year-round is key. If you produce year-round, you can maintain the same staff and avoid having to retrain people at the beginning of the next season. Plus, it means you’ll always have fresh produce!
  • Gardens enhance the customer experience. A garden can be used to educate guests about produce variety and the source of their food.
  • Community should be a part of restaurant gardens. The French Laundry garden plants pumpkins for schools and invites students to visit.
  • Staff education is crucial. As a team-building tool, The French Laundry staff gathers to harvest, prepare and enjoy a lunch in the garden.
  • Gardens encourage collaboration among chefs and growers. Chefs can pick what seeds they want to grow, and growers can accommodate them. At The French Laundry, growers are considered part of the prep team.

Anyone can grow a garden, Taylor said. It’s environmentally friendly, it’s wonderful for chefs — who love and appreciate fresh produce — it ultimately lowers food costs and it encourages everyone at your restaurant to think about flavor rather than shelf life.