A Visit to the Legendary The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio
HURON, OHIO – Bob Jones, Jr., whose family owns and operates the legendary The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, turns to me from the front seat of his dust-encrusted truck.
“When we have visitors—especially writers like you—we worry about what they are going to think about our packing facility.”
It’s a frigid, windy day in mid January, and Jones is about to escort me and visiting chef Skyler Golden of the Driskill Grill in Austin, Texas, into a newish packing and shipping facility that just went live in November.
The comment inspires some anticipation, and also apprehension. I am there as a guest of the Joneses, who flew me out for a tour and put me up at the guest quarters of their nearby Culinary Vegetable Institute, a multipurpose venue with an open professional kitchen, library, adaptable event space, and more intimate dining room. (It also hosts special programs such as a coming benefit for the Bocuse d’Or USA this Saturday night, March 15.) There were no conditions on my reporting, nor was I asked to show the family or their team this piece before posting it. Still, the prospect of an unpleasant obligation loomed before me. I have enough complexes being a New Yorker in the heartland, the last thing I want to be considered is a backstabber.
I needn’t have worried, and neither did Bobby. The shipping facility, surprisingly, turns out to be my favorite part of the tour, and Skyler’s as well, and for the same reason: It was the least expected. In the winter, produce is harvested daily from a network of greenhouses, according to what’s been ordered on the day, funneled to this facility, and then boxed up by each department. The boxes are gathered on racks based on delivery method—truck, FedEx, and so on—each of which carries its own hard deadline. An average of about 175 orders of varying sizes ship out to destinations all over the world every day, with new orders flowing in right behind them by email, phone, and fax, and the orchestration of the groups that make it all happen is comparable, it seems to me, to that required to run, say, a small regional airport.
Indeed the thing that most impressed me about The Chef’s Garden during my whirlwind visit is the thing about which the Joneses are most self-conscious: The technology required to power their operation. Ironically, what most impresses me is the breathtaking devotion to cleanliness, safety, and quality, evidenced as much at this facility as it is in the greenhouses: feet are stomped in a sanitizing agent before one enters the facility, substandard specimens are tossed into gargantuan bins, greens are bathed in a sanitizing liquid then dried before being packed up, and each individual crop is assigned a bar code that allow any food safety issues to be tracked to the source (thankfully, The Chef’s Garden has never had to do that).
Great attention is also paid to the packing itself, as staff members fuss over the contents of each box like florists. Their coats bear badges that say WOW TEAM. Is it an anagram? “It’s a reminder of the reaction we want from the chefs when they open the box,” says Bob. “We want it to be like Christmas morning for them. We want them to say ‘Wow.’”
THE FIRST TIME BOB, JR’S BROTHER, LEE JONES, BROUGHT zucchini blossoms to an Ohio farmer’s market in 1983, he did it surreptitiously. He didn’t want his competitors to see him peddling such dainty little curiosities. His family, hit by a one-two punch of high interest rates and a hailstorm, had lost just about everything that year, and were rebuilding. They’d suffered enough humiliation at auction; they didn’t need to be seen selling “flowers” in an industry defined by conventional commercial crops such as cabbage, sweet corn, peppers, and eggplant.
But Lee had recently met a chef who had trained in Europe, and had been making the rounds at the farmer’s market, asking farmer after farmer if they could get her the same delicate blossoms she’d come to know and love in Italy. She’d been laughed away at every turn. Even the Joneses—Lee, his father Bob, and brother Bob, Jr—thought she was “crazy.” But Lee decided to give it a whirl.
The chef was overjoyed, and mentioned to another chef that she had met a farmer who was willing to entertain custom orders. The national network of chefs taken for granted today hadn’t coalesced just yet, but there were chefs out there, many of them, who had staged in Europe and were desperate for farmers who could produce ingredients of the caliber they’d become accustomed to overseas, as well as more and more specialty items that they sought out to add dynamism to their plates.
The Joneses began accommodating more and more special requests for items such as baby carrots, baby beets, breakfast radishes, even edible flowers, until they reached a crossroads. “The chefs were two percent of our business and eighty percent of our aggravation,” says Lee Jones today, repeating a story he’s told so often that it’s honed to a well-crafted monologue. The family decided they had to either jettison the toques or else shift their focus entirely to chefs. They went with the chefs and, in the late 1980s, Farmer Jones Farm became The Chef’s Garden, and before long some of the most influential chefs of the day—Charlie Trotter, Jean-Louis Palladin, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Thomas Keller—were customers. Framed snapshots of the Jones family with these and other luminaries, past and present, line the walls at key buildings at both the office and the Culinary Vegetable Institute….