Jeremy Fox Is Learning ‘Hard-Core, Extreme Gardening’ From New Mentor Peter Jacobsen

As you may have heard, Jeremy Fox is busily at work on a new project in Yountville, which centers on a cookbook, as well as a website, and the garden he’s started in order to generate ideas for the book. He invited us up for an early look at the garden in its infancy, and we took a rambling tour through the partially planted beds Jeremy is working on with master gardener Peter Jacobsen — whose next-door Jacobsen Family Orchards has been exclusively supplying fruits, herbs, and vegetables to the French Laundry for the past decade. From Jacobsen, Fox is learning how to grow the things he sometimes took for granted back in his Ubuntu days. “When I’m learning things, I’m happy,” Fox says. And Jacobsen says he’s excited to learn how to make use of things that more conventional, and meat-driven chefs tend to ignore — things like fava bean tops, almond flowers, and lovage leaves. “Jeremy doesn’t let anything go to waste.”

Later in the afternoon we also met the third partner in Jeremy’s endeavor, Ryan Hill of Hill Family Estate Winery. Ryan, who also happens to be Peter’s godson and whose family owns the property Jeremy is now farming, will be helping with the pop-up dinner portion of the project at which Jeremy will be doing the bulk of his recipe testing, by exploring the not-well-explored arena of wine pairing with vegetables. The dinners, which have yet to be scheduled, will be happening at multiple locations, including in the garden itself, al fresco, this spring and summer. (And now that Jeremy doesn’t have that full-time gig at Rotisserie & Wine to worry about, he’ll have more time to focus on the dinners.)

Below, our interview with Fox and Jacobsen as we toured both Jeremy’s budding garden and Jacobsen’s gardens and orchard across the street.

What have you started growing and shooting for the book?

Jeremy: So far we’ve been shooting brassicas, because we’ve got the craziest varieties of broccolis and cauliflowers growing. All of them have been so unique. 40 or 50 different colors and shapes. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Peter: [pointing to one plant, which doesn’t look quite like cauliflower] They’re starting to bolt, meaning they’re starting to go to flower, so a lot of people wouldn’t consider them [for cooking]. But of course Jeremy considers them because they’re going to have different intensities of flavor. That’s one of the things I’m learning from Jeremy, even though I’ve been farming for a long time: that different parts of the thing are edible. We end up defining a cauliflower as that white thing we see in the store, but Jeremy defines it as three or four different bits of the flower.

Jeremy: Like these beautiful leaves. I’m not doing cooked dishes with them, because they’re too special and unique to cook. They lose their color.

So what kinds of dishes are you thinking up for these cauliflowers?

Jeremy: You’ll have to buy the book. You ever seen Mall Rats? “Why buy the cow…”

Peter: Here try some of this [hands us some leaves]. You should recognize something there. At first it might not be anything, but then you’ll taste something reminiscent… It’s wild cress, which Jeremy discovered here.

What goes in next? Are you cycling through different kinds of plants in a certain order?

Jeremy:We looked at the entire year of growing and how to stagger it. We’re not growing a lot of each thing because I just need enough for the book and to do some dinners. It’s not like for a restaurant where I have to have three or four beds of something and they have to be staggered so I don’t have any lulls. We have some really curious ingredients coming, some really hard-to-find seeds.

I have one dish that’s sunchokes steamed with cherry blossoms, reducing the cherry blossoms down and glazing the sunchokes with the liquid, and adding some of the cured olives [from the property]. The olives sort of look like cherries. And I think olives and cherries go really well together.

Peter: There’s lots of stuff growing, but you’ve got to dig it up to see it. There’s probably three hundred pounds of sunchokes in the ground right here.

Jeremy: [arranging some sunchokes and flowers for a photo in the dirt] That’s about as freshly plated as you can get. This is the kind of photo I want for the book. Not your average shot. I’d be happy with that as the sunchoke photo in the book.

So you guys are both learning from each other?

Jeremy: I might be learning more.

Peter: For me it’s the excitement of the synergy of the whole process. I’ve been growing things for 27 years now, and I contend I do know a thing or two… but at the same time [via working with Jeremy] it’s like revisualizing what plants are, and what food is. Like with the cauliflower… it’s a re-imagining of what the plant can do.

Jeremy: From Peter I’m learning the actual gardening… where I just used to say what I wanted and I’d go pick it. But the actual understanding of how to grow things and when to pick it. That’s what great to be able to do for the book. It’s not like, “Now you’ve got this great produce, here’s what to do with it.” It’s more: “Here’s how you get the great produce and here’s what to do with it.”

So the idea of the book is to show people how to grow their own food, and then cook it?

Jeremy: And to present it on a lay-person’s level. Not dumbed down, but written in plainspeak.

Peter: I’m not sure that [most] people are ever going to grow their own food. But the way I’m reading things, it’s a way of re-appreciating your food, and the plants. And certainly appreciating the energy and time and focus it takes to grow it. I’m just a random gardener, but there’s people like River Dog Farms who have given over their whole lives to growing great produce. And so if that’s better appreciated, it’s a good thing.

Jeremy: Teachers and farmers need to be better appreciated.

[We walk about a hundred feet over to Peter’s property, formally known as Jacobson Family Orchards, and we’re followed by an elderly cat and a half dozen curious chickens.]

Jeremy’s garden’s just getting started, and mine’s kind of ambling along. [Jeremy’s] will have some similar things, but he’ll be exploring some different ideas.

Jeremy: It’s not about a precious showpiece garden. It’s like real, hardcore, extreme gardening.

Peter: I’ve got so much stuff growing here, but it’s exciting to find a chef who’s interested in all of it, and who’s capable of doing something with it. Well… the chefs I work with are capable of it, but none have ever been so focused on vegetables alone.

[Peter lays out and slices up several examples of citrus that he has growing among the 120 fruit trees he has in the orchard, including a Palestinian sweet lime which has a flavor that’s barely there — extremely mild.]

Peter: We have a ritual here, when the sun goes down, and that mountain over there turns red, we call it Red Mountain, and it’s time to stop working. And we take some of these Rangpur limes and have them with some tequila up there on the deck. It’s like a sour Mandarin orange in reality, but it makes a superb margarita.

Jeremy: It’s like it has a salt content.

Peter: There’s sixteen different citrus trees here. There’s a fuzzy one, and we haven’t even figured out what it is.

Jeremy: I think infusion is the way to go with that one.

[We walk over to the side to taste some lovage, and Jeremy discusses how he likes grapefruit and lovage together as a palate cleanser. We then taste some rosemary flowers and discuss how the French Laundry uses them, and how they’ve started their own small farm across the street from the restaurant.]

Peter: I’ve grown exclusively for the Laundry for ten years, and they’ve had that for two years. I could just never produce enough for them. Tucker [Taylor] came in and he really knows what he’s doing, but they can’t duplicate what I have here [with these 120 trees]. There’s ten different figs, ten different pears, fifteen different peaches and nectarines. So they grow some similar things over there, but not the same things. They come and harvest almost every day from here. They’ll come and harvest something like this [pulls some leaves of chocolate mint]. It’s just for ornament but it packs a wallop.

[Peter pulls a rutabaga out of the ground and slices off some pieces to taste.]

Jeremy: They’re so good just raw like that.

Peter: See, I can grow these. But all I know how to do is boil them up. But after that I’m at a loss as to what to do. The sugars are really high. See when it’s cold like this all that bitter goes away, none of that rutabaga-r-y background is there. I learned from Jeremy that rutabaga slaw is an option.

Jeremy: Sauerkraut. You julienne it with kohlrabi and cure it just like sauerkraut, just with salt. It takes about four or five days whereas cabbage takes about two weeks. Turnip just turns to mush, but rutabaga, kohlrabi: excellent.

Peter: What [the Laundry has] been harvesting a lot of is fava bean tops and pea tops. They have a really delicate flavor. This here is just cover crop. This is a mixture of fava beans, peas, vetch, and oats. The vetch, peas, and the beans fix nitrogen, and the oats just provide organic matter. The fava beans have a nice depth of texture to them, almost like spinach.

Jeremy: Sort of like mache. Really velvety. I’ve grown to really like cover crop. I like the buckwheat tops. And asparagus grass.

[We taste some cardoons, “grandmother of the artichoke.” Jeremy discusses cooking them up with lemon and anchovy. Peter then shows us his small snail farm in a wooden box, the only completely organic snail farm that he knows of.]

So are you going to be doing dinners here, outdoors?

Jeremy: Yes. But not all of them.

Peter: So the excitement for me is being able to grow things and turn to Jeremy and say, ‘What do I do with it?’ And I like demanding people, actually. Because it shows that they care. [to Jeremy] But I don’t want you to be too demanding.

Jeremy: I’m a pushover.

[laughs] Yeah, right. That’s your reputation.

See a slideshow from the tour below.

Earlier: Jeremy Fox Launching Big, ‘Multi-Layered’ Side Project, Including a Pop-Up Dinner Series [Grub Street]
Jeremy Fox and Tyler Florence Part Ways After Five Months [Grub Street]

Jeremy Fox Is Learning ‘Hard-Core, Extreme Gardening’ From New