When you think about trendsetters, urban farming is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. However, Dan Allen is not only changing the agricultural landscape, he is a key player in setting the trend for restaurant gardens within the larger movement of farm to table.
As CEO of Los Angeles–based Farmscape, “the largest urban farming venture in California,” Dan’s mission is to “connect city dwellers with fresh, organic produce through a network of urban farms, while creating living wage jobs for the new generation of farmers.” In the past few years, Farmscape has increasingly been called on to build and maintain vegetable gardens for restaurants all over California.
Some of Farmscape’s best-known projects are the rooftop garden at The Jonathan Club in L.A.’s Financial District and Chef Niki Nakayama’s backyard garden for her restaurant n/naka in L.A.’s Palms neighborhood. Allen says, “Chefs are no longer hiding behind a piece of meat or sauce. This movement is an extension of farm to table where chef’s are looking for higher quality, more varied produce that continues to push the envelope for what dishes are possible.”
When Chef Nakayama came to Allen, she was not just looking for the ability to serve fresh and custom ingredients. “She was interested in the experience for the staff, for them to become familiar with the growth cycle of the plants and look at other stages of the plant to consider for their ingredients.”
One example is the baby cucumber: The staff at n/naka were able to recognize the beauty of the plant in its earlier stage, when it still has a characteristic yellow flower blossom, and incorporate it into a recipe. This holistic emphasis on food growth brings the creativity back into the kitchen, allowing for a unique dining experience that changes with the seasons.
When I asked Dan about the future of urban farming in regards to restaurant gardens, he predicts that “fresh produce and the dynamic nature of an edible landscape” will become an increasing part of the restaurant experience. With more and more gardens integrated into the atmosphere of the restaurant, “the idea of the urban farm as part of the setting will become less and less abstract.”