About 3:30 p.m. – sometime between the lunch rush and the dinner craziness –chef/owner Colin Ambrose escapes from the kitchen of Estia’s Little Kitchen on Long Island. He heads out the backdoor to the source of much of his culinary inspiration: a one-third-acre organic garden that produces sweet peas, beets, carrots, tomatoes, strawberries and more.

In less than two hours, some of the day’s harvest will make its way from the garden onto customers’ plates in the restaurant’s signature two-hour salad. Ambrose is among a group of restaurateurs using their green thumbs to put just-picked produce on the menu.

A growing business

Locally grown produce is one of the hottest menu trends, coming in behind only locally sourced meats and seafood, according to the Association’s “What’s Hot in 2015” chefs' survey, all members of the American Culinary Federation. “Hyperlocal sourcing,” such as restaurant gardens, claims seventh-place on the list.

Estia’s Little Kitchen uses its garden to differentiate itself. As one ad says: “Come for dinner and walk our chef’s garden to witness the source of his famous seasonal offerings.” The two-hour salad, plucked from the garden, best reflects the restaurant’s farm-to-table philosophy. In the spring, the salad highlights the season’s freshest greens. In late summer, it features blanched green beans, onions, roasted beets and blue cheese; come fall, greens are topped with roasted squash and goat cheese.

The 38-seat eatery in Sag Harbor, New York, uses its farm-fresh produce to add seasonal pizazz to the menu, serving up side dishes like zucchini matchsticks and sautéed Swiss chard. In the spring, the restaurant’s pan-roasted Long Island duck breast” is accompanied by a rhubarb chutney, made from the garden’s harvest. A sampler plate of home-grown tomatoes served with fresh mozzarella and basil is a customer favorite in the summer.

Urban gardens

On the rooftop of his Windy City Frontera Grill (an Association member), Chef Rick Bayless has proven that neither a warm clime nor a large plot of land is a gardening necessity. Bayless grows about 1,000 pounds of heirloom tomatoes and chili peppers each summer in portable self-watering EarthBoxes. The harvested produce is brought down to the kitchen, where the culinary staff transforms it into Frontera’s signature rooftop salsa.

A few minutes away, another innovative garden grows in the midst of Chicago’s bustling O’Hare airport. Association member HMSHost Corporation and the Chicago Department of Aviation have developed the world’s first airport aeroponic garden. Swiss chard, sweet basil, cilantro, dill and more are grown on 8-foot-tall towers, without soil. The 928-square-foot O’Hare Urban Garden supplies fresh produce for several airport restaurants including Tortas Frontera, Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi, Blackhawks Restaurant and Tuscany. Travelers can view the garden while dining at the O’Hare Bar and Grille – a meal that may feature produce grown just a few feet away.

From farm to table

Even if your restaurant doesn’t have a garden, there are plenty of ways to buy local if you choose to do so:

  • Choose local farms as your vendors. “If you don’t have your own garden, it’s important to visit farms and talk to farmers and make a connection with the growing process,” says Bayless. “The more you work with farmers, the more you understand the rhythm of growing, and the better cook you become.”
  • Shop farmers markets. These markets usually cater to individuals, but chefs can get some good deals if they time their visits wisely, says Ambrose. He recommends shopping later in the day and looking for overstocked items.
  • Participate in Community Supported Agriculture. Through a CSA, you agree to purchase shares from a farm before the growing season in return for fresh, local produce. Some CSAs work closely with restaurants to ensure that the farms' crops meet the restaurants' demand.