“I’ve got a hundred, chef. How are you doing?” Skrovan asks.
“Sixty two. Not quite as good as you,” the chef answers.
“That’s all right,” Skrovan says. “I’ve had a little practice.”
For the next few days, Chef Blake will split his time between the farm and The Culinary Vegetable Institute for a stage (rhymes with dodge) ─ an opportunity to learn new culinary techniques and forms of cuisine under the guidance of another chef and staff ─ in this case, CVI chefs Jamie Simpson, Dario Torres and Tristan Acevedo.
But Chef Blake’s stage goes a step further with an opportunity to get up close and personal with where and how The Chef’s Garden’s farm-fresh vegetables are grown. “I wish all chefs could go through this in-depth,” Skrovan says. “It gives them a different appreciation for where these things come from.”
“And it’s nice to get out of the kitchen,” Chef Blake added.
Eager to Learn
Chef Blake’s usual kitchen is inside contemporary Japanese restaurant Uchi Austin, where he is sous chef. “I work at the best sushi restaurant,” he said. Thanks to the restaurant’s stage program, ambitious chefs get Uchi’s blessing to travel and expand their culinary knowledge and experience.
“Jack (Yoss), our main corporate chef, he really is passionate, and has a lot of drive, especially in teaching,” Chef Blake said. “During our leadership conference in Austin, with all the restaurants there, he brought it up. I perked up the moment he said ‘Chef’s Garden stage,’ and we just sat down and after that, talked, and got the ball rolling from there.”
“This was for me a great opportunity to get out of my culture, jump into a whole new culture, and experience something new and learn a different side of the industry, something I think most chefs and most cooks will never get to experience. To be able to come out to God’s country, and be out in the heartland and experience this has been kind of a dream for me, for sure.”
Numb and Number
Rather than simply tour the farm, Chef Blake came in search of an all-immersive experience from start to finish, which included time in the 34-degree packing facility.
“I got over into the edible flower room first,” he said. “I got to see the care that the packers have, just double checking everything. Making sure it was pristine. Then I moved over to sorting carrots, cleaning carrots.” Despite his sharp knife skills in the kitchen, Chef Blake said the deft hands of petite carrot packer Anabel Negrete made him look “pathetic and slow.” “She’s just whippin’ away at them and her pile is twice as big as mine.”
From carrots, Chef Blake moved to squash, and then headed over to lettuce.
“That was really cold,” he said. “It was really hard to just clean them and make sure they looked really great, and then pack them into the box, making sure the product wasn’t mishandled or just crammed in there. So, a lot of respect for the ladies in there, and the gentlemen who can handle it with such care, but so quickly, too.”
Chef Blake’s final assignment was filling boxes with Deborah Stacy. “She’s been here for ten years,” he said. “And she knows the whole thing from start to finish. At that very last moment, she’s the last line of defense. She’s double checking everything.”
Spending half a day in the cold gave Chef Blake a new appreciation for the people who package the fresh vegetables that arrive in a chef’s kitchen.
“My hands were numb after three hours. They’re there for eight hours,” he said. “But, from the very moment they get there, you can tell they put a lot of love and passion into what they do to make sure the product is as pristine as it can be.”
Learning at the Micro Level
Greenhouse product manager Brandon Magyar ushered Chef Blake to a greenhouse and left him under the tutelage of grower David Hartwig. “David’s going to let him harvest, do some seeding and get some dirt under his nails,” Magyar said.
The chef harvested red ribbon sorrel, red shiso and chives. “Cut it just like you’re out trimming your lawn,” Hartwig said, handing scissors to the chef. “Go ahead and take a shot.”
While Hartwig shared his skills, Chef Blake shared ways he’s used shiso in the kitchen. “I’ve done seared fois gras nigiri with candied quinoa and shiso on top,” he said. “It’s a nice refresher for the whole dish.”
In another greenhouse, he harvested Oxalis blooms with grower Volodymyr “Volo” Kibets. “I like trimming these,” Chef Blake said. “It’s a lot easier than sorrel.”
He toured the research lab and talked extensively with botanist Nick Walters and microbiologist Deanna Forbush. “Talking to the research team, and their passion for just getting down to the basis of what the plant is, and what makes it delicious or not, is really cool,” he said. “And I think that’ll help me, you know, kind of open my eyes to it more and try to pick out more nuances.”
Food for Thought
Back at the CVI, Chef Blake was especially inspired by the root cellar, particularly the fermented items.
“At Uchi we’ve been kind of kickstarting our fermentation program, and it’s been a challenge and it’s been wonderful,” he said. “And now I feel like I have more resources at hand to be able to reach out and communicate with Chef Jamie and the team and learn from what they’re doing here.”
“Nothing goes to waste, so they find a good process, whether it’s fermenting it, turning it into kombucha,” he said. “Can you turn it into a fish sauce? Can you dehydrate it and turn it into a powder that we can use later? Or is it going to the animals? Nothing was going to waste. Industry wide, we’re really bad about that. So it was cool and really refreshing to see that here.”
The personal connections left an impression on him, as well. “Working with Chef Jamie, Tristan, Dario ─ you could see the passion. Especially Dario. He has such a passion for food and where it comes from, the agriculture side of it. Just talking to him about it, you see the smile on his face. He just lights up.”
Chef Blake said carrying that enthusiasm back to Austin and encouraging his team to visit the farm is a high priority.
“I think they would fit right in here,” he said. “They would love to experience something like this, too. I’m hoping I’m not the only one there who likes to go out to the farms. So I’m going to encourage everybody. I’m going to force them if I have to. But I don’t think I’ll have to force anybody. They’re all very willing to step out of their box to experience something new. I think most of them would really want to have this kind of experience.”
“Hopefully I can incorporate some of my passion for this and what I’ve learned to my team down in Texas. That’s ultimately the end goal,” he said. “It’s sharing the culture and imparting the knowledge and the respect for the product. That’s what I hope to see come out of it.”