The Culinary Gardener - Evan Chender
Evan Chender is the owner and operator of The Culinary Gardener. Launched in fall of 2013, it began as a one-acre micro farm and has recently expanded to include an adjacent field that will more than double its production area. Evan started cooking from a very young age and it made him eternally curious about food, gardening and the process from cultivation to ingestion. He started with a backyard garden and basically hasn’t looked back since. He has been growing Tokita Seed Fioretto 60 and 70 and will soon be exploring more Oishii Nippon Project Fioretto varietals along with Romanetto, a Romanesco type Fioretto.
There is no doubt that Evan is madly in love with food. He cut his teeth working in some of the world’s most renowned kitchens and small farms. He obtained a degree in Sustainable Agriculture and has sought to cultivate a relationship with food from all angles and approaches. He has always had an intense interest in growing crops and since he was a young boy, he has sought a deep understanding and connection with the food lifespan, from planting to plating.
Evan seems to have an unquenchable thirst for learning, experiencing and growing. At some point in his burgeoning restaurant career, he decided his lifestyle was on the farm, not in a busy restaurant kitchen. He still wanted to be involved in the restaurant scene but in a different way. He had gained a deep understanding of chefs, kitchens and produce so he created a niche, relentlessly working to grow the highest quality ingredients for the restaurant industry, and today his farm almost exclusively sells produce directly to local restaurants. Throughout eight growing seasons, Evan has gained the trust, friendship and loyalty of the community, as they excitedly await new ingredients to explore in their kitchens.
Evan is a unique kind of agriculture pioneer, as he possesses the excitement of a child on Christmas morning when it comes to discovering, cultivating and introducing unique and delicious vegetables to his community. He is diligent and his hard work is paying off. His farm has launched Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes and the recent purchase of an adjacent plot to expand his crop will help sustain his intensive and varied growing style.
We were lucky enough to chat with Evan for a few minutes about his passion and farm as The Culinary Gardener.
Evan, can you tell us a little about your farming operation and how you got into this industry?
The Culinary Gardener is a farm business in Weaverville, North Carolina. We are located about ten miles outside of Asheville, in the Western part of the state.
I’ve loved food my whole life, I gravitated to it from a young age and my life revolves around it. I grew up cooking at home and experimenting in the kitchen when I was 8, 9, 10 years old. As I got older I had several different jobs cooking in kitchens. Cooking is what got me into experimenting with growing food. I got super interested in the idea that, from a standpoint of eating and cooking, if I had more control over the whole process I could make and taste things I’ve never tasted before using my own growing techniques.
I decided the lifestyle I wanted was on the farm and not in the kitchen. I can still cook every night for my friends and family, but on my own terms. I still wanted to be involved in the restaurant scene, I had a pretty good understanding of working in kitchens and cooking and what kinds of things chefs gravitate towards in terms of produce. It made me want to focus on selling just to restaurants. I wanted to create a niche that no one else was doing in the area, which was an emphasis on the highest quality crops. I’m creating value with harvest techniques, growing techniques, post-harvest processing techniques to really retain an innate quality of the product. It’s been very successful and I’ve been able to develop a name for myself as the go-to farm for the best quality crops.
How large is your operation and what are you growing?
We just did a big expansion and took over an adjacent field which puts us at nearly three acres now. It’s an intensive style of growing, where we really maximize production per square foot. We grow a wide variety of things, and work with about a dozen restaurants right now with the goal to be their one stop shop. To do that, we need to grow an unbelievable selection of crops throughout the year, which we do. We grow and sell year round. We may take a week off a year, but we have also sold 52 weeks in some years.
One crop we have a lot of success with is Raddicchio, which has a six month season. We grow two dozen different varieties throughout that time period. We grow different brassicas and edible flowers. Currently coriander seeds and coriander flowers, as well as some more common stuff like cabbage and cucumbers. The varieties that we grow are selected for specific traits like taste, shape and uniqueness. We do a lot of Japanese, Chinese, Persian types. It’s a mix of specialty crops and common crops. Radishes, salad turnips, carrots too. We know we're going to sell everything every week.
Can you talk about some of your success with our Fioretto?
I started growing it maybe three years ago. I started out with Fioretto 60 because it was the only variety that was available at the time that I could find. The first crop was a failure. It stress folds very easily, and our spring weather is erratic. It can be very hot in March then frost in May, and the Fioretto was not happy with that. But then we were able to keep it really happy in the fall and had a really great fall crop. The chefs were extremely excited about it! I was able to get a really great price per pound on it, similar to what I charge for sprouting broccoli because it's kind of similar, but it's a much better yield per plant. And now, it’s a really important crop to me. We grow a lot of it, probably a thousand pounds this year, and with the new varieties from the Oishii Nippon Project we will be able to grow it consistently all year around. It’s easy to sell, and tastes delicious.
The Fioretto as a vegetable has a really nice stem, and the texture stays tender for so long. It can lengthen and still retain its texture, with a crunch and really good flavor. When you cook with it, I like how you can get flavors in between the florets. My favorite cooking technique is probably roasting it.
How do you decide what to grow next? Is it up to the chefs you work with? Do you work closely with the chefs to determine growing?
In the beginning years we did. At this point, over the eight seasons that we have been in business, I have gained their trust and chefs know that I am going to produce things they are going to want to buy. There is a lot of new stuff we do every season, which keeps the chefs engaged and excited. But it’s a challenge to keep them satiated, and we are constantly trialing new varieties, pushing our limits, and growing unique products.
Are there other farms in the Asheville area doing what you’re doing?
Not really. Some people that used to sell to restaurants are changing up their markets by doing CSAs or roadside farms. No one is doing what I am doing, and I’m pretty well established at this point. Asheville is small, I have strong support from the community.
Can you tell us what you are looking forward to or what direction you are taking your farm?
I’m really excited that I have more space to better manage everything and domore rotation. I’m ridiculously excited to grow the Romanetto. It’s been on my radar for a while and I just know people are going to go crazy for it. Plus, it seems pretty straightforward to grow. I’m hoping that it's successful. I’m also excited to be able to grow more quantities of things. Scale up things that are really popular, like the Fioretto, and reach more folks with it. We just planted the Fioretto 60 last week, and with the multiple varieties, we will have a much longer season this year.
To wrap things up, can you share a few things that you love about farming?
I am totally obsessed and addicted to farming and doing the best job I can. My favorite part is that it's the ultimate never-ending challenge. It’s very engaging! Whatever you put into it, you get out of it and it's so satisfying to be successful in farming. So much of it is just making the best conditions for the plants to succeed. It is the ultimate challenge, and I like a big challenge that is multi-faceted and continuous. You’re always trying to do a little better, tweak it, learn from your mistakes, pivot, or change up what you’re doing, and I’ll always be very engaged in that process. I dedicate so much of my life and time to it, so when things work out we get great yields, we're selling lots of produce, and everyone is super happy with the quality. It's really, really, really rewarding to be part of that!