It's so hot in the intense summer sunlight that the asphalt roof of Jacques Gautier's Brooklyn brownstone has melted to the consistency of a sidewalk covered in chewing gum while he shows me around, brandishing a hose. Between gardening chores, he periodically pauses to name another one of the tender shoots that thrive up here in the UV glut.
"Can I eat it?" I always want to know. But I shouldn't have to ask. The vast majority of the crops growing up here are destined for the dining room.
As we speak, just a few stories below us, there's a team in the restaurant busily striking the set from the Sunday brunch rush and prepping the kitchen for dinner. Here at Palo Santo, Gautier's Latin-American inspired eatery, they'll be using mostly ingredients sourced from local farms, including the very one we're standing in.
Morning delivery at the bustling Park Slope brownstone.
Gautier himself is imposingly tall, but his face is open and inquisitive, and lights up when he discusses his most recent projects. Breezing around in jeans and a white, short-sleeved linen shirt, he seems equally at home digging in the dirt as tweaking tonight's menu in the kitchen with his staff-both cooking and gardening are passions he learned from his mother as a kid.
In a way, Gautier's current project is the culmination of many years of following those passions, which first led him to take a job waiting tables right out of high school, then landed him in culinary school in New York. From there he started working in kitchens, and has now been active in the industry for about fourteen years.
Palo Santo is the first restaurant Gautier has opened on his own, though, and from the start it was important to him to keep sustainable methods at the core of his business operations. Fronting onto a demurely tree-lined Park Slope street, the space is a repurposed Pentecostal church, and the dining room retains an appropriate air of sanctuary, down to the wood-and-brick candlelit interior and the altar-like fountain chattering in a tiny garden space out back, where there's just barely room to nestle a single table.
As we make our way outside, before climbing the narrow metal staircase up to the roof garden on the top level, we pause at a lower sub-roof with a row of hutches made of metal and chicken wire. Gautier opens one and takes out three button-nosed rabbits, setting them down on a little makeshift pasture, which is really an old soil-filled bathtub with grass and clover planted over the top.
"The rabbits wouldn't just go on the menu for regular service," he says, maybe in answer to my concerned expression, as I pat the fluffy black one on the head. But these bunnies aren't pets. Not long ago, little fellows just like this guy were plated up as part of a seven-course tasting menu held in Palo Santo's back room for 20 select friends, regulars, and members of the press. The dinner was a team effort between Gautier and celebrity brewmaster Garrett Oliver, of Brooklyn Brewery fame.
Other local collaborators include Annie Novak, of Eagle Street Rooftop Farms, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But the bulk of his ideas, Gautier says, come from working together with the established rural farmers who supply the restaurant with the items that can't be produced on the roof.
For example, near the edge of the roof, in a cluster of containers where nothing is growing yet, Gautier shows me some freshly cobbled-together compost that still looks like a heap of kitchen garbage.
As he picks up a jagged half-eggshell, he starts telling me about the farmer who delivers fresh eggs to the restaurant, with whom he's on a first-name basis. In exchange for regular deliveries of discounted eggs, every June, Gautier sends Nestor the farmer back upstate with several palettes of extra tomatillo seedlings. Gautier is able to start the plants early in the spring up on the hot, sunny roof, where the growing season is slightly longer than on the country farm. Later, in the fall, Nestor sells the crop harvested from the mature plants back to the restaurant at a fair price. "It's all cyclical," Gautier explains.
This kind of symbiosis with local farmers is just one way in which Gautier strives to minimize waste to everyone's benefit. Another way is Styrofoam. I've been so busy concentrating on stepping carefully around the Tetris-like arrangement of Styrofoam containers that I haven't thought about the paradox here until Gautier points them out to me. For a moment, when I realize the roof is packed tight with polystyrene planters, I'm perplexed: Were we taught wrong as children? Is Styrofoam not the ultimate environmental sin, the bleached bones that will remain after every last landfill rots into the ground?
Well, probably-but only if you throw it away. Styrofoam eats up a reported thirty percent of the space in American landfills, takes an estimated 500 years to decompose, and can't be recycled the curbside way. Gautier's elegant solution of using the pernicious packaging material to house plant beds simply cuts the landfill out of the equation. And, because he gets fish delivered in these cases on a weekly basis, it's a more or less unlimited resource for his purposes. It's all cyclical.
With this general goal of sustainable self-recycling in mind, the prevailing spirit up here is one of cheerful experimentation. When I ask Gautier how many different crop varieties he's growing at the moment, he smiles and shrugs. "I don't even know! There are so many different kinds that we don't even know the names of, or that we're not even really aware of." As he explains, variety is key, and micro-managing the contents of your garden is in many cases not only unnecessarily time-consuming, but actually destructive.
Biodiversity is the buzzword. "There are things that other people consider weeds, and waste a lot of energy getting rid of, that we can use in salads. And other things are just important for maintaining the richness of the soil." Gautier leans in close to one of the planters and brushes the tiny leaves of what looks a lot like a weed. "Clover is a kind of weed," he confirms. By definition, though, a weed is just a plant growing where it's not wanted. If we could put aside the horticultural snobbery for a second, we might learn to coax all kinds of benefits from plant varieties that are usually loathed and destroyed. For example, the specimen we're looking at right now is edible, Gautier says, while other clovers are nitrogen-fixing, helping to fertilize the soil for the other plants around them.
As with all experiments, not everything has worked quite so well, like Gautier's attempts to cultivate a kind of tropical squash known as chayote. Every year, its vines would grow with astounding speed but finally, frustratingly, fail to produce fruit, because the Brooklyn frost hits just a few weeks too soon for the plant to mature all the way.
Space limitations are another ever-present obstacle. But are there also advantages to a city environment for growing crops, ones that might be missing from a rural farm? "It's more just...difficult," Gautier admits, before adding, "You know, one thing is, you never have a shortage of compost. Because people are always throwing shit away."
Simply put: Gautier's approach just makes sense-a reality that's often undercut by the very fact that "locavore" culture is currently a hot restaurant trend in hip metropolitan neighborhoods like Brooklyn. It can be tempting to dismiss sustainable urban farming as another marketing fad for the Twitter generation.
But start to pay attention to urban farmers like Gautier, who are passionate about their projects without being dogmatic or flashy, and you'll realize that the logic of the rooftop garden explains itself. While he is fully committed to exploring the possibilities of urban farming at his restaurant, he also says he has no plans to brand Palo Santo as a back-to-nature, farm-to-table type of place. "We just kind of do what we do, and people either find out about it or they don't. We want people to come for good food and a good restaurant."
Be sure to read Part I and Part II of the "Try This at Home" series. Cool culinary projects for the do-it-yourselfer in all of us.
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