STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, my neighborhood grocery store in Washington, D.C. was pretty much ransacked over the weekend. Photographers even came to document the empty shelves before the storm ever hit. Maybe that was panic, or maybe people just anticipated time at home to cook. You have opportunity on a snowy weekend. So let's take a moment talking about food. We're going to report on a new way of food preparation. Some of the farmers who supply raw material for cooking have become as creative as chefs. The Chef's Garden is a specialty vegetable farm about an hour west of Cleveland, Ohio run by three generations of the Jones family. Eliza Barclay of NPR's food blog, The Salt, recently visited there.
ELIZA BARCLAY, BYLINE: The office of Chef's Garden is like a creative workshop where chefs call in from kitchens around the world to brainstorm with sales reps like Dawn Krieg. One of her regulars is chef Daniel Humm at 11 Madison Park in New York.
DAWN KRIEG: They're starting their menu testing right now, and so Danny emailed this morning. And he said, you know, I'm getting ready to put some spinaches on the menu. Can you give me a sample of all the spinaches?
BARCLAY: So Krieg suggested some new ones he might like.
KRIEG: We have got the petite New Zealand, the petite red malabar, the simply red, the petite green spinach, the petite tropical spinach and then the purple spinach leaves. So he's got a lot of choices.
BARCLAY: Chefs often ask for miniature versions of their favorite vegetables. When they're small, they pack more flavor, and can make for stunning garnishes. And Lee Jones, who runs Chef's Garden with his father and brother, is happy to oblige. He shows me a tiny eggplant.
LEE JONES: It's the shape of a pea, literally the size of a pea. Look at the color on this, literally, the fruit-orange-colored orange. Want to taste one?
Lee, like the chefs, is always looking for surprising varieties. He tries out the latest seeds from plant breeders and combs through dusty agricultural books. This year, he started planting a sugar snap pea with an extra curly tendril.
L. JONES: What we're trying to do is offer new colors of paint to the chef. Now, color, it's not about just about color. It's flavor and texture. It needs to taste good. And if it doesn't, it has no place.
BARCLAY: Back when Lee was a kid, his family grew ordinary vegetables. Then in 1983, they went bankrupt and lost almost all their land. All they could do with what was left was supply the local farmers market. One of their customers was a food writer in Cleveland desperate to find squash blossoms. So they went back to the zucchini patch and picked some for her. She was ecstatic, and they began to realize there was an opportunity in the world of fine dining. They're still growing those squash blossoms, and like everything on this farm, they're grown to order.
L. JONES: Good morning, guys.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good morning.
BARCLAY: It's 7 a.m., and Lee is dressed as he always is, in blue overalls and a red bow tie. The sun is coming up over the field, and the flowers are beginning to open. But not every blossom is going to make the cut.
L. JONES: You're trying to walk past those ones that are waning, if you will, and pick that one that's ripe today, in this particular moment, in this particular hour - the perfect squash bloom - so that it can go on to the plate and blow the guest away of that chef. There's an art to it. This not commercial farming. We're an artisan farm.
BARCLAY: That attention to detail flows through every step of the process, starting with how the Joneses sort nearly every seed by hand. By the time the vegetables reach the packing room, they're treated like precious jewels.
BOB JONES JR.: Jorge (ph) is packing lettuce for an order going out yet this afternoon. He's packing some smaller 2-pound boxes for one restaurant and then a larger 20-pound box here, bulk pack.
BARCLAY: Bob Jones is Lee's brother. He oversees the shipping room, where lettuce rosettes the color of merlot are carefully packed with insulation. Nearly all of the vegetables that leave here reach kitchens within a day of coming out of the ground. That ground is the responsibility of Bob Jones Sr. He's the patriarch of this family operation and has been working the land nearly all of his 75 years.
B. JONES SR.: If you don't have good soil, you have nothing.
BARCLAY: And actually, Bob Sr. doesn't just want good soil. He wants spectacular soil. And the way to get it is by only planting one-third of the land at any one time. The remaining 200 acres are sown with cover crops that put nutrients back into the soil.
B. JONES SR.: If you would talk to most of the farmers around here, they think we're crazy. They think we're absolutely ready for the loony bin because we do things so much different.
BARCLAY: He wants to show off how deep his topsoil is. So he goes and gets his bulldozer.
B. JONES SR.: As you can see, we've got about a foot of topsoil here, which is fantastic. That's built up over the years.
BARCLAY: It's far from a conventional way to make money farming. But chefs are more than willing to pay for the exquisite vegetables that will come out of this soil next year. A 2-pound box of lettuce goes for about $24. And these vegetables aren't just for chefs anymore. Chef's Garden is starting to sell directly to consumers. Eliza Barclay, NPR News.