With Utah's abundant agricultural resources, it's no surprise that the farm-to-table movement has caught on in Salt Lake City. For years, chefs have stalked the farmers markets, carefully selecting the best local produce for their restaurants. Or, they've hooked up with farmers, requesting specific items to enhance their menus.
But many chefs are going even more local by growing their own produce and even foraging. It keeps them in tune with the seasons, and guarantees that the quality of the food they serve meets their exacting standards.
At Sage's Cafe and Vertical Diner, which both offer strictly plant-based dishes, local fruits and veggies are the center of attention.
Chef Ian Brandt grows tomatoes, zucchini and peaches at his house for the restaurants. And an herb garden is in the works at Sage's near the 16 fig trees and 16 grapevines he's already planted.
"We have torn out a large area of asphalt, which will be turned into gardens for our chefs," he says. "In five years, our Sage's Cafe garden will be at a high productivity. We'll also be creating a new sprouting and micro-greens production for the winter months when produce is not easily available."
A favorite concoction is Sage's sangria, made from juice Brandt produces from grapes grown at the former Sage's location and at his house. He mixes it with Pinot Grigio, rum and luscious wedges of lemon, lime and orange. Garnished with a cluster of his grapes, this refreshing drink pairs well with many dishes.
Nestled in the heart of Millcreek Canyon, Log Haven has been serving romantic and memorable dishes for 20 years. The wild edibles that grow throughout the canyon often find a spot in the dishes prepared by Chef Dave Jones, who forages for forest mushrooms, Oregon grapes, elderberries, chokecherries, serviceberries, gooseberries, nettles, watercress and rosehips.
A transplant from Santa Cruz, Calif., Jones regards local food as a way of life. His seared Pacific salmon, served with tender purple potatoes and cucumber broth, is dressed with purslane, a wild weed that looks like a baby jade plant and tastes like watercress or spinach.
Jones is working with a retired botanist to wrangle the native plants into a wild edible garden. "Native plants are durable, with a high nutrition value," Jones says. The wild garden should be fully thriving in two to three years.
Growing his own produce was a no-brainer for Billy Sotelo, who took over in 2013 as head chef at La Caille, the Old World French restaurant located at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. "It's like cheating," he says. "I can start out with a better product than everybody else."
He and other staff members took a 14-week gardening course in Fruit Heights from a master gardener Sotelo relied upon while he was working at Fresco. They compost kitchen scraps and create house salads made of butter and red-oaks lettuces, arugula, kale, Swiss chard and peas from the restaurant's half-acre garden plot. He expects that this fall, they'll be serving sides of potatoes and carrots from the garden, along with hand-pulled mozzarella mixed with garden-grown tomatoes and basil.
Sotelo knows he could contract with a farmer or visit the farmers market to get fresh produce, but wants to remain in control of his menu.
"Not all farmers are the same," he says. With his own garden, "We can get even more particular about what we're looking for. We don't just want [garlic], we want the elephant garlic or purple garlic or a nutty garlic. We can grow what we want."
Amber Billingsley, the talented pastry chef behind the dolce (dessert) menu at Vinto, is famous for her handmade gelato and sorbetto, treats that complement the restaurant's menu of simple but mouthwatering Italian fare.
Before a recent move to run the kitchen at 3 Cups in Holladay Village Square (expected to open by early November), Billingsley harvested lavender, mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, anise hyssop and lemon verbena from the restaurant's small herb garden and from her home plot to flavor Vinto's dolce offerings. Vinto's new pastry chef will continue to use herbs—and so will Billingsley at 3 Cups, where she will make pastries, desserts, gelato and savory bites.
"Digging in the dirt is a form of stress relief for me," she says. "Growing herbs keeps me in touch with what is happening seasonally, and I love the earthy, sometimes savory, flavors that herbs impart to desserts."