It’s like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and Toto leave the black and white world of Kansas and step into the Technicolor dazzle of the Emerald City.
And, like the Emerald City, if you want to see the handiwork of grower Jose Gomez and his team, you have to know where to find it.
There’s no yellow brick road, and no Scarecrow, and it’s not somewhere over the rainbow. Just go down the road apiece and follow a lane through the cornfield, past the beans on the left and the squash on the right. Wave to the guy on the tractor, then go over the little bridge that crosses a shallow gully gently carving its way through the tree line, and you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.
You’re gobsmacked by a masterpiece of patchwork precision − perfectly straight rows − some parallel, some perpendicular − each one frilled with impossibly perfect little lettuces set an exact equal distance from one another in glossy hues of dark red, light red, purple, light green, speckled green and, of course, emerald.
The artist behind the immaculate landscape is Jose Gomez, a slightly built, soft-spoken, deeply tanned young man with an easy-going spirit and a ready grin. (He is also a Cleveland Indians fan and is wearing the t-shirt to prove it.) After a long cold drink from the water cooler on his truck’s tailgate, Gomez surveys his surroundings with satisfaction.
“The lettuce is really nice right now,” he says. #understatement
The Chef’s Garden’s first tiny lettuce plants of the season were planted at the end of March, an early spring chill still in the air. The plants looked fragile, vulnerable, small, uncertain and alone − like little children just dropped off at summer camp.
And, also like children, lettuce grows fast.
With summer well underway, the crop is thriving − full, robust and strong. But you can’t keep them little forever. That’s why Gomez plants in waves, seeding seven beds per week so there is always plenty of petite, ultra and baby lettuce to supply farm-fresh lettuce in the specific sizes to meet chefs’ demands.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the lettuce beds is the absence of weeds. No weeds, none, sully the soil running between the narrow, ruffled rows.
Gomez said some of it has to do with tilling the soil multiple times prior to planting. But, after lettuce starts growing, tilling with a tractor can disrupt the fragile root structure.
But in the distance are four figures. Not a lion, a tin man, a scarecrow or a little girl in braids, but men named Armando, Jose, Marco and Victor. They are crouched low, backed by a soundtrack of mariachi music, combing over the soil to extract even the smallest signs of little green interlopers.
The men might as well be hand-polishing each individual lettuce leaf, the plants are so glossy and vibrant.
For most people, walking across the lettuce rows requires a conscious, tippy-toe kind of two-step to avoid walking on the plants. But Gomez never looks down as he strides from red Romaine, to painted oak, to green rosettes (lovely enough for a corsage, by the way), causing no damage at all.
If he had the choice to grow any crop he wanted to, Gomez said he’d still choose lettuce.
“I like my crop because you have it all the time,” he says. “In the winter it’s in the greenhouse. In the summer it’s in the field.”
Gomez said his personal favorite lettuce is green Romaine, for its crisp crunch.
“It’s not too soft,” he says.
Greenhouse lettuce is perfectly fine, but for Gomez, field lettuce is where it’s really at.
“Everybody likes summer lettuce,” he says. “It has more body, more texture. The color is darker.”
All of which translates into the remarkable flavor of our farm-fresh lettuce.
The Land of OZ was an imaginary dreamscape controlled by a seemingly benevolent wizard who wasn’t real.
The Chef’s Garden’s lettuce fields look like a dreamscape, too, but they’re not imaginary and they are tended by a kind, intelligent, diligent farmer who, along with his four compatriots, works magic on the land.
You could say he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was. For real.