If you have been lucky enough to eat vegetables straight from the garden, you know there is no comparison between a fresh vegetable and one shipped and stored for days. For local Chef Rob Weland, owner of Garrison at 524 8thStreet SE, growing his own vegetables and herbs is part of his restaurant DNA. While he believes the “farm to table” language has become a little over used, the philosophy behind it is the foundation of his successful restaurant. Garrison has been named by Washingtonian magazine as one of 100 Very Best Restaurants and Garrison is also in the Michelin Guide.
The Garden Mentor
Rob might be described as a salt of the earth kind of of guy. His garden plot, a few blocks from Garrison, is hidden behind Ginkgo Gardens at 911 11thStreet. You could walk onto the DC Southeast Freeway from his plot. “Maybe it’s the diesel air that makes my tomatoes grow so well,” laughs Rob as we meet in his garden. It is not the well-organized farm you might think of when you read that he uses homegrown ingredients in his award-winning dishes.
“I met Tim Stark at Union Square in Manhattan when I was first starting out,” says Rob, “and he really made a deep impression on me. I figured if Tim could produce these great tomatoes from a 4thfloor walkup, I could figure out a way to do it where I was working.” Tim Stark’s book, “Heirloom: Notes from an An Accidental Tomato Farmer,” talks about his journey from writer to farmer and his efforts to reintroduce the intense flavor of heirloom tomatoes to America’s palate.
Rob loves being a gardener and would love to expand his crops and is always experimenting with his plot. This year, he has planted his tomatoes very densely to try and increase the number. “They may be too close,” says Rob, “but if they do take off, I am going to have some really, really good tomatoes.”
Rob shares his gardening duties with his restaurant staff, because he firmly believes that knowing more about where the vegetables come from makes for a better cook. “My staff help out in watering and weeding, and for many it is the first time they have the actual experience with gardening,” Rob says. Rob’s daughter also helps out, and has planted a patch of strawberries in the middle of his garden. “I really look forward to the next generation of chefs making freshness second nature in their approach,” Rob reflects.
This summer Garrison is going to offer a special tasting menu that features heirloom tomatoes. “Diners will get to taste tomatoes in each course, and we will use a variety of heirlooms in the dishes we serve,” says Rob. Heirlooms are also known in some areas as heritage tomatoes. They have a shorter shelf life and often have a little sweeter taste than other tomatoes. The heirlooms come in a variety of colors, shapes, flavors and sizes. Some of the better-known ones are Brandywine, Green Zebra, Gardener’s Delight, Hillbilly, Cherokee Purple, Hawaiian Pineapple, and the Mortgage Lifter.
Diners can join Garrison’s email list to be notified of special events like the heirloom tomato sampling, pig roasts, and special dinners by going to the Garrison website, www.garrisondc.comand fill out the popup form.
Rob would love to be able to grow more herbs, salad leafs, peppers and tomatoes so he could expand the use of his own produce, but for now, he works with local farmers to provide the balance of his menu. “I love working with One Acre Farm,” says Rob, “and love the mystery of what Mike Protas brings me each week.” Mike is the farmer/owner of One Acre, a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm located in Dickerson, Maryland. The farm enrolls families to buy fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the growing season. They bring their produce on Thursdays to 219 11thStreet, SE, weekly for pick up by Hill families. Garrison gets what is left each week. To sign up or learn more about this CSA, check their website, www.oneacrefarm.com.
Garrison Restaurant continues to be a leader in the farm to table movement, and Rob is happy to be an agent of change by teaching his staff the joy of gardening and sharing his passion for fresh food with Hill patrons.
Rindy O’Brien enjoys the harvest from her own garden plot, and encourages all to sample local cuisine. She can be contacted at [email protected]