The lead-up to New Year’s Eve is easily the busiest week of the year at The Chef’s Garden. The uptick in volume hits us hard. So, every year, we office rats who work at desks from 8 to 5 show up two hours early, put on boots and hairnets, and volunteer to pitch in wherever we’re needed on the farm. You could say it’s “all rubber-gloved hands on deck” in order to get every chef’s order from greenhouse to box to kitchen in time for year-end revelry.
Our new supervisors are always a little leery of us interlopers, and rightfully so. What could a writer from marketing possibly know about harvesting microgreens? And what if she screws up? These guys run watertight ships, and there is no room for do-overs. It has to be right the first time, every time, or you’ll have to walk the plank.
But, despite their wariness, every supervisor who was asked to wrangle rookies for three days did it with patience, grace and a sense of humor. They are all sticklers for perfection with extremely high standards. But they are also excellent, thorough teachers who spent valuable time instructing and guiding us to do our unpracticed, fumbling best.
Adjusting to Physical Demands
For some transplants, the physical adjustment wasn’t always easy.
“Even something as simple as hand harvesting citrus coriander blooms is very physically demanding,” said videographer Jilly Burns, who spent three days in the specialty greenhouse under the watchful eye of Volodymyr Kibets. “You wouldn't think picking such a delicate flower would leave your body so worn out and sore. Although I wouldn't say I'm too out of shape, my body was definitely not used to that sort of work. I definitely found a new appreciation for the kind of care and work these greenhouse growers and harvesters put in to produce the amazing products that they do.”
Culinary Vegetable Institute General Manager Katy Hollenbeck and Director of Business Strategy Christy Bezuijen were assigned to the below-40-degree packing room. “I am amazed that they do that job day in and day out in the cold like that,” Hollenbeck said. “I had Cuddl Duds on from head to toe and was still cold!” Bezuijen, who spent a good portion of her time opening and closing edible flower packages, said she was particularly impressed with Supervisor Kathleen Griffin. “She worked right alongside, just as hard as everyone else ─ like a boss!”
Keeping Up and Making Friends
Besides working in the dark, Digital Marketing Associate Shelby Baker said the trickiest part of harvesting gold pea tendrils was “keeping up with the boys.” “It was exciting to get a tote full of product, and then I’d turn around and see that they’d have six or seven already done themselves.” She said the extra early start time was also an eye-opener. “They get up early and work these long hours harvesting so chefs get their orders on time,” Baker said. “Every single one of them is happy to do it and in good spirits.” Did she make any new friends working with “the boys?” “Sure did! Kim, from Uganda.”
Data Analyst Katie Meyer said harvesting micro herbs with grower David Hartwig was no sweat. “But that was clearly by design,” she said. “David told me that most micros in his house take weeks to really master, but people could catch on to red ribbon sorrel easily and rapidly. So it was the only product I helped harvest. They were optimizing results while still setting me up for success as part of their team for the week.” Meyer found a new friend, as well. “I met Robert,” she said. “He is a very nice guy with an interesting story, but I felt like I had to cut short our conversations because I kept losing track of my count! Sorry to Robert if I seemed rude. I was counting.”
A Change of Scenery
Grower Gheorge Gureu said adding five extra sets of hands to his five-person flower greenhouse crew was a significant boost harvesting citrus lace, marigolds, borage, Egyptian starflowers and nasturtium leaves. “It was amazing,” he said. “They helped a lot. I don’t know how I’d do it without them.” Gureu had the added time-saving advantage of relying on extras with prior experience. “The same people helped me last year, so I didn’t have to do any training,” he said.
Rose Halsey, assistant to Bob Jones Jr. and Board of Directors administrator, spent her three days in the flower greenhouse harvesting nickel-sized nasturtium leaves. “The trickiest part of the job is counting to 55 while picking and placing them in a small package and not losing count,” she said. She was impressed by the order and cleanliness inside the immaculate greenhouse and said it was a refreshing change of scenery from the four walls of the office. “It is a feast for the eyes to see all the beautiful colors and textures this time of year,” she said. “I like that it smells and feels like spring in the house.” Keeping up with Gureu wasn’t easy, though. “Gheorge is a hard worker who was very busy. He always runs to where he is going, at least for my short legs! I could tell he was all about getting the next package done, but he took time to direct me.”
Learning from the Best
Yours truly worked under the tutelage of grower Ievgenii Zybtsev, harvesting micro cilantro, arugula, watercress and beet blush. A week earlier he walked me through a 90-minute tutoring session explaining every aspect of my upcoming duties, including hands-on practice with the scissors. He’d demonstrate each skill, effortlessly trimming row by row and gently plopping cut greens into a small green crate, making the job look deceptively easy. It must have been painful for him to watch me try to get the hang of it. By the end of the week, though, I had improved considerably and felt a surge of pride when he checked my work, gave me a nod, and spoke a single word. “Good.”
As my competency grew, so did my fondness for Ievgenii, who kept checking in to ask if I was still having fun. I was, even though picking every tiny seed pod from wisp-thin leaves of micro cilantro was as tedious as searching for peppercorns in an unmown field, and looking for perfect beet blush leaves inside an unlit “dark house” with only a flashlight to see by was kind of spooky. I developed a finger blister from hours of cutting with scissors ─ a tender little memento from, as Ievgenii called it, my “adventure.”
Many Hands Make Light Work
At The Chef’s Garden, our team is our most valuable asset. When the whole farm comes together, monumental tasks become manageable. As the old proverb says, “Many hands make light work.”
Those of us who spent a short time in someone else’s shoes gained a heightened perspective and appreciation for what others do here on a daily basis and, more importantly, for who they are as individuals. I hope my work was satisfactory, and that no chefs could tell whether their micros were cut by a rookie or a seasoned pro. I think I did okay. And I think Ievgenii thought so, too, because as we said goodbye on my last day, he shook my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, “You gave me nothing to complain about.”
High praise from someone I now consider a friend.