Across the lane from Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant lies a 3-acre farm that produces many of the fresh vegetables that have helped give the three-star restaurant its reputation as one of the best in the world.
Presiding over the rows of tomatoes, beets, melons, cucumbers and microgreens is culinary gardener Aaron Keefer. “We’re right across the street from the restaurant,” Keefer says, “and there’s this beautiful space that people are allowed to walk around. You can come up to the garden and see the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s funny how detached people are from what food actually is. People say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a potato grow before.’ ”
Keefer will preside over a different garden for a day when he gives the keynote address at the eighth annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Keefer has become a fan of the president who has been called “The Founding Foodie,” and whose revitalized Revolutionary Garden at Monticello continues Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables. Keefer says his garden at The French Laundry mirrors Jefferson’s 2-acre garden at Monticello in many ways.
Keefer is always experimenting with new vegetable varieties in the garden and believes that vegetables — and the farmers who raise them — have become an exciting new resource for chefs. He explains, “I think that it’s coming around now and vegetables are really becoming the star of the flavor profiles on a plate. Every single starred restaurant out there — and really even other people — are using their relationships with farmers to get new inspiration and to create these new dishes for themselves.”
At home in the kitchen and the garden
Keefer is not only a resource for chefs, but also a liaison between the garden and the kitchen at The French Laundry. As a former chef, Keefer is uniquely qualified for his job as culinary gardener. As Keefer puts it, “I think it definitely helped me to be in the kitchen, even though it’s a completely different animal, but I think the thing to take home from having both careers is the communication. I know what’s going on on both sides of the equation, and I’m able to meld them together a little better.”
Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, believes that The French Laundry “captures Jefferson’s spirit of innovation and experimentation.” The focus for both gardens is curiosity and passion.
Jefferson felt strongly about gardening. He grew 330 herb and vegetable varieties in his 1,000-foot-long garden terrace at Monticello and raised 170 varieties of fruit on his property. He encouraged others to garden with similar passion by hosting an annual contest with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first peas each spring. To further fuel his neighbors’ passion for gardening, he made sure one of them won the contest — even if his peas were the early champions of the season.
Keefer also shares Jefferson’s passion for the soil itself. In 1792 while serving as secretary of state in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Martha who was caring for Monticello’s garden in his absence. Jefferson told Martha that the only way to rid his garden of insect-infested plants was to cover it with a heavy coating of manure. When I mentioned Jefferson’s obsession with soil to Keefer, he echoed Jefferson’s sentiments, saying, “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the soil. You can give your plants chemical-based fertilizers and they will grow. Just like if you give your muscles steroids, they will grow. But it’s not the same.”
Keefer believes that the flavor in vegetables comes from the cycle of life in the soil. “When you take a handful or two of really truly rich organic soil, there will be millions of microorganisms and fungi in there. And those are the things that create the nutrition for the plant. They need the life in the soil to break it down for them so they can uptake it and somehow that creates a completely different flavor profile.”
The lesson of Jefferson
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Jefferson didn’t have access to chemical-based nutrients — and chances are he wouldn’t have wanted them. Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contends that what made Jefferson a truly revolutionary gardener was his belief that everyone should eat a diversified diet — a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. Now, America has begun to catch up with the founding farmer. Rausse says, “Today I look at the market and I think of what Jefferson had. I compare it to when I came to America 40 years ago, and I think finally they are listening to Jefferson. There are artichokes and chicory at the market now. People are starting to figure it out, but it took 200 years.”
Keefer’s revolutionary approach to gardening mixes the great traditions of heirloom farming techniques with the innovations of West Coast cuisine. Jefferson would have approved.
Main photo: A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn