You expect to see this growing in the desert.
Cactus from the Chef's Garden at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa — Photo courtesy of Debby Wolvos
Eggplants from the Chef's Garden at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa — Photo courtesy of Debby Wolvos
Thanks to chefs' gardens popping up all over the state, Arizona’s arid landscape has become the surprising source of some of the most highly-touted farm-to-table food in the country.
In fact, this year, Tucson became the first city in the United States to be named a UNESCO Capital of Gastronomy. This prestigious designation was earned not just because of the area’s rich agricultural history but because of the innovative ways modern chefs are bringing that heritage into the future through their own gardens.
“These chefs' gardens are highly attractive to consumers who have a tremendous number of choices of where to eat,” says Dave Whitinger, executive director of the National Gardening Association. “Home and locally-grown food just tastes better than stuff conventionally farmed and then trucked in from thousands of miles away.”
Primo takes its name literally
Chef Roderick LeDesma in the Chef's Garden at JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa — Photo courtesy of Debby Wolvos
Roderick LeDesma agrees, “You want the best ingredients since they directly affect the food and the final dish you’re making.”
Chef de Cuisine of the award-winning Primo at JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass Resort & Spa, LeDesma admits that the organic mindset didn’t really click for him until he started working with Melissa Kelly, executive chef and two-time James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northeast. “It really opened my eyes to how we should treat food and how much more it means when you put in the time to grow your own. You gain a huge respect for it.”
Chef Roderick LeDesma showing off his harvest — Photo courtesy of Debby Wolvos
LeDesma changes his menu often, centering it around what’s ready to go in the garden. That can mean anything from using fresh beets for an Anise Honey Mustard Glazed King Salmon to adding carrots and peppers to a Chile Fried Calamari Salad.
“I especially love seeing the peppers and tomatoes growing,” he says. “It’s definitely more personal when you watch something grow from a seed. And being able to use fresh herbs is such a privilege.”
Three sisters, five stars – at Kai
Chef de Cuisine Ryan Swanson of Kai at Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass — Photo courtesy of Debby Wolvos
Every chef has their favorite garden ingredients and for Ryan Swanson, Chef de Cuisine at Kai – Arizona’s only Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond restaurant – those are corn, beans and squash. Staples of the Southwestern diet, they’re known as “the three sisters” because of their symbiotic relationship.
Swanson has even created a “Three Sisters” entrée, sourcing elements directly from the Pima and Maricopa people who inspire the cuisine at Kai (at Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass in Chandler), utilizing Ramona Farms as the restaurant’s own chef’s garden.
“It’s an honor to represent this culture,” he says. “I like to think their ingredients are the heart and soul of all of our recipes.”
Swanson is careful to stay true to the restaurant’s roots – “Kai” means “seed” in the Pima language – and he’s created a dining experience that’s almost spiritual.
Caring for body and soul at Stonegrill
Chef Ryan Lamkin in the Chef's Garden at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa — Photo courtesy of Debby Wolvos
For Executive Sous Chef Ryan Lamkin, eating healthy has become personal. He lost 80 pounds this year, and is all about organic and whole foods now, which is easier to do since the 21,000-square-foot organic chef's garden at JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix has almost tripled in size over the past few years.
“Getting to grow the items we want to experiment with and incorporate into our menus is very inspiring,” he says. Although the garden started with herbs, chilies, tomatoes, strawberries and Swiss chard, it’s now growing everything from kumquats and Peruvian limes to broccoli, cucumber and cauliflower.
The Chef's Garden at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa — Photo courtesy of Debby Wolvos
Lamkin’s favorite crop has been the artichokes. “The yield is very low but they are so beautiful and the flavor is second to none,” says Lamkin. “So it’s quite a treat when we grow enough to share them with our guests!”
Intelligent cuisine at Mii amo
Chef Alexander Pasco of Mii amo — Photo courtesy of Mii amo
Located adjacent to the spa, the organic chef garden at Mii amo in Sedona provides many of the vegetables and herbs used in the “intelligent cuisine” for which the restaurant is known.
Chef Alexander Pasco is passionate about creating healthy and delicious spa food that doesn’t taste like, well, spa food. The bountiful garden allows him to do that through things like Brussels sprouts and leeks in winter, sugar snap peas and watermelon in summer, and permanent beds of asparagus, strawberries, and herbs including mint, rosemary and cilantro.
“Having a fresh garden is a way to connect our guests with the food they’re eating,” says Pasco. “They can experience it on a different level, knowing exactly where it came from, and therefore appreciate it more.”
Going local at Lincoln Restaurant
Chef Chris Neff of Lincoln Restaurant at JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa — Photo courtesy of JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa
Chef Chris Neff is excited about the new restaurant at JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, where he has designed a new, locally-focused menu with many of those ingredients coming directly from the garden.
“I love growing root vegetables like beets, carrots and turnips,” he says. “My grandparents had a garden where they grew their own vegetables and herbs, and it made me want to always know where my food was coming from and who grew it.”
Very hands-on, Neff gets out to the garden a few times a week to see how everything is growing and to pick a few items to play around with. “It means a lot to me to be able to take a seed and nurture it for weeks or months until it grows into a vegetable, then cook it in a dish and serve it to guests,” says Neff. “It’s a great story to share with them.”
Chefs at JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa — Photo courtesy of JW Marriott Camelback Inn Resort & Spa
All of these resorts offer tours of their gardens, and often feature spa treatments and products made with their own garden-grown ingredients.
As Neff says, “There’s nothing better than taking guests out to the garden and grabbing a few things to cook for them later. It adds so much to the dining experience.”