Letting their gardens grow

First lady Michelle Obama may be the caretaker of the best-known vegetable garden in Washington, but several area restaurants have long embraced the idea of growing their own food.

Frank Ruta, for one, says he “grew up doing this.”

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Ruta, the chef at Cleveland Park’s Palena and a former White House chef for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, says growing produce at home is part of his family’s heritage as immigrants from Italy.

“It is a tradition in my family and part of my heritage and also the nation’s,” he says.

In his backyard garden, Ruta now grows fennel, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, herbs and beans, all of which he uses in his restaurant.

 Growing his own food, Ruta says, gives him a connection to the earth and an understanding of the ingredients.

The first lady broke ground on the White House vegetable garden on the South Lawn in March for similar reasons.

Obama invited a group of fifth-graders from a Washington elementary school to help plant the seeds and hoe the earth — but also to expose them to the idea of healthy eating.

 “My hope is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities,” Obama said during the groundbreaking. “My girls like vegetables more if they taste good — especially if they’re involved in planting it and picking it, they were willing to give it a try.”

{mospagebreak}At Palena, Ruta keeps in mind the old-school idea that fruits and vegetables have their own seasons — rather than being mass-harvested and available any time of year.

“A chef a number of years ago told me that there are no more seasons,” Ruta said, referring to the notion that produce of all kinds can be bought year round. But for Ruta, a joy of cooking and growing produce is waiting for what is fresh and in season.

 Ruta says the taste of in-season produce is unmatchable.

 
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“The ingredients I use are fresher, have a better taste and are better for you,” he says. “When I make a pesto with basil I picked that morning from my garden, it just tastes better.”

Lobbying for a national symbol to promote the homegrown movement began early in the Obama administration. In January, California chef Alice Waters, who pioneered the homegrown movement more than 40 years ago, wrote an open letter to the Obamas pushing for a garden at the White House. She has been advocating for the garden since 1993.

 “I have been immersed in a grassroots food revolution that I believe will make a tremendous difference to the health, security and values of all Americans,” Waters wrote. “Local, affordable, nutritious food should be a right for everyone and not just a privilege for a few. At this moment in time, you have a unique opportunity to set the tone for how our nation should feed itself. The purity and wholesomeness of the Obama movement must be accompanied by a parallel effort in food at the most visible and symbolic place in America — the White House.”

 Another prominent D.C. chef and restaurateur who grows his own produce is Todd Gray of Equinox.

 Like Ruta, Gray points to the health benefits of using homegrown produce, but he also says producing food locally can result in environmental benefits.

 “A head of lettuce that comes from California comes here on a truck,” he said. “Think of all the carbon emissions that get released into the atmosphere to get it here.”

 Gray said when he grows his own produce for his restaurant, the amount of carbon emissions is reduced significantly.

{mospagebreak} There is also a public safety element involved, Gray said. Recent recalls on peanut butter, spinach and tomatoes prove his point.

“Knowing your food sources is key, especially in this heightened time,” Gray said.

 Poste, the restaurant in the downtown Hotel Monaco, also has its own garden.

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“The concept of our garden is to teach our young chefs what fresh food tastes like,” Poste chef Robert Weland said. “Our ideas about teaching are very much in line with [Obama’s], just done on a more professional level.”

And while not all area restaurants have their own gardens, many are trying to capitalize on the trend. Local celebrity chef Jose Andrés is scheduled on Thursday to cook a “Farmers Market Dinner” at his restaurant, Café Atlantico, showcasing produce from local farms.

But even though the push toward homegrown organic food has a long history, Obama’s star power has taken the movement to the next level, many chefs agreed.

Weland said he thinks the growing trend toward local gardening will teach a new generation about where its food comes from.

Ruta says he delighted in the media attention the first lady attracted on the day she broke ground.

“Just think — every time a photo of the kids picking a tomato is taken, it will be a reminder to people about organic gardening,” he said.

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