Chef Nate Varney loves to get out of the kitchen and into the fields where many of his ingredients are grown.
A down-to-earth chef guided by his own farm-to-table philosophy, Nate has been working closely with farmer Rick Greenlaw of Greenlaw Gardens in Kittery, Maine, to feed the constant need for fresh produce at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club.
During a recent visit, as the two men talked about how they keep a flow of fresh veggies moving from the well-cared-for soil at the farm to the dinner plates of hungry guests at Jimmy’s, Chef Nate is particularly excited about Rick’s carrots.
“It tastes like he grows them in sugar,” says Nate, remarking on the natural sweetness. “They’re awesome.”
Welcome to Greenlaw Gardens
Situated on Rustlewood Farm, the town’s last remaining dairy farm, on Wilson Road (Route 101), Rick and his wife Holly started Greenlaw Gardens about a decade ago as a small farmstand and now serve well over a dozen area restaurants plus local school cafeterias.
Rick, who studied agriculture and aquaculture in college, described the inspiration to start the farm as “a series of small light bulbs that kept getting brighter and brighter.” He is fascinated by the art and science of farming and passionate about continuing to learn everything he can about his profession.
“We grow our produce without herbicides, non-organic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. We aren’t certified organic but we’re growing organically,” he says, “using traditional methods that build the health of the soil.”
The goal he says is to “produce food in a responsible sustainable way, using the natural resources we have right here – like good soil, sunshine, rain” to sow and reap “a quality product that we can take pride in.”
Greenlaw Gardens grows a variety of annual and perennial vegetables and herbs, with highlights that include their fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, baby lettuce mix, winter squash and multicolor carrots.
Agricultural Ecosystem Inspires Both Farmer and Chef
“What Rick does for me and the rest of the chefs is make our job really easy,” says Nate. Working with the highest quality ingredients is essential to Nate because, as he puts it, “The trick to cooking really good food is cooking really good food.”
Rick regularly sends out “availability lists” alerting his customers to what produce is being featured at any given time.
The availability lists “guide us on what we’re going to cook,” says Nate, who emphasizes that his working relationships with Rick and other providers enable him to serve the freshest, in-season ingredients on his plates at Jimmy’s while minimizing any reliance on “corporate purveyors.”
“The best chefs that I’ve worked with have that sense of seasonality,” says Rick, sporting a cutoff T-shirt, shorts and a straw hat as he conducts a late-summer tour of the farm.
For Rick, the work of a farmer is invariably connected to the earth, and to the cycle of life on the agricultural ecosystem he and his family have created in Kittery. For example, he explains that the carrots being harvested and barrel-washed today started out as an entry in a spreadsheet (or “plant-o-gram”) that he puts together each winter to help determine the optimal rotation of his crops to encourage the healthiest harvest.
Fresh Carrots on a Farm-to-Table Journey
As the two men continue their conversation about how nature, respect and hard work all play key roles in their mission to feed others, Rick says he notices that when he shows newly available fresh produce to Nate, “You can just see the gears working.”
In the moment, the chef’s internal gears were imagining those carrots plated next to a filet of fresh, sea-to-table halibut. Nate explains that he does a pickled miso marinade and the carrots help bring out the sweetness in this dish.
Getting out of his Congress Street kitchen for a walk in the fields of Greenlaw Gardens is inspiring for Chef Nate. Here, so close to the source, he envisions those carrots making their farm-to-table journey from the wintertime plant-o-gram to the dinner plates of guests gathered to see the Grammy-winning musical artists who regularly perform at Jimmy’s.