Kitchen kings season restaurant dishes with home-grown herbs

GARDEN - VARIETY CHEFS

September 05, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

In the heat, the scents of basil, rosemary and sage -- musky, sharp and green -- perfume the heavy air. Though it's early in the day, the sun is beating down on the herbs and tomatoes in this small garden. Guy Reinbold leans over and brushes his hand across a plant.

"The basil looks good right now," he says. "It was incredible how much we took out of there. . . . The rosemary's coming back. . . . Rosemary takes a long time, it's like pine. . . . This is sage. . . . This is oregano -- it needs to be taken down, see, it's beginning to bud -- this is another sage. . . . and basil. I just love basil, as a spice and as a seasoning."

A few feet away, behind a glass wall, bathers splash in a swimming pool.

"We water in the morning and at night," Mr. Reinbold says, "so we don't get any of them sunburned. It gets awful hot up here. The good news is, the birds and the bugs haven't discovered us yet!" He laughs, and a helicopter flying just overhead drowns out the sound.

For Mr. Reinbold is no ordinary gardener, and this is no ordinary garden he presides over: He is executive chef at the Stouffer Hotel in the Inner Harbor, and his "garden" is part of a planted area on the hotel's seventh floor.

But he is not unusual in his quest for fresh and readily available herbs and produce. Chefs across the country, driven by ecological concerns as well as culinary ones, are seeking out the freshest and best ingredients for their seasonal, regional dishes.

Mr. Reinbold calls it "a commitment to excellence" for chefs to grow their own herbs, but it is also a way of connecting food to the source from which it comes. It is the same force that drives chefs such as Alice Waters of California's Chez Panisse to find her own produce growers and Jasper White of Boston's Jasper's to seek out his own fishermen.

At Stouffer's, herbs from the garden go into salads and marinades, and into flavored oils used on cooking. "In this city," says Mr. Reinbold, "if you put crab meat, tomatoes and basil together, you're in pretty good shape."

Mr. Reinbold, who says he doesn't garden at home, has plans to expand the rooftop garden next year. He wants to continue planting around the hedges that surround equipment and glass above the atrium of the building. "I'd like to do peppers and pole beans," he says.

Around the Milton Inn

But his plans are not as big as those of Mark Henry -- executive chef at the Milton Inn -- who cultivates 5 rural acres around the rustic and romantic restaurant on York Road in Sparks. He's had some sort of garden each summer since he started with the inn 5 1/2 years ago.

"Every year we learn a little bit more," he says, walking around the herb and flower patch atop a small knoll just behind the restaurant. "The first year we had it, we had corn in the garden, which was a big mistake. The deer came down and trampled everything to get to the corn."

Now the garden brims with herbs (basil, oregano, three kinds of thyme, chives, borage, fennel, rosemary, several kinds of sage, mint, lemon balm) as well as flowers (lavender, zinnias, bachelor's buttons and cleome, which "smells like skunk," Mr. Henry notes).

"Every year it gets a little bit closer to what we're actually using," says Mr. Henry. "I think everything in here we use either for garnish or in an actual preparation. . . . The sage, the chives, the tarragon, the rosemary, the thyme and the basil are all used in actual cooking. We'll garnish with basil tops, chive flowers, fresh tarragon."

He gestures up the hill. "We've just cleared a spot up top that's probably about eight times this size, and we hope we can get some things planted. . . . We'll probably do more vegetables and so forth."

Mr. Henry hopes to plant some red, yellow and black raspberries around the perimeter of the herb patch. There's a small piece of land beside the restaurant patio where he wants to plant rosemary, and on the slope of the hill to the herb patch he envisions a whole garden of mint.

Having the garden gives Mr. Henry the luxury of fresh flavors in season. "I use very little dried basil. As a result, we don't do many dishes all year with basil. We'll wait until June, and we'll start getting in some cut basil from Jersey, and by the end of June our basil is coming up strong enough we can start cutting it -- at that point, we use it all the way through to first frost."

Like his colleagues, Mr. Henry doesn't use pesticides or spray of any kind. "If we lose our herbs because of bugs, we lose 'em," he says.

Harbor Court's seventh floor

Back downtown, and back in the sky, Michael Rork leans over a plant and examines its leaves. "Look at that -- something's eating the sage!" he says.

His garden is the smallest of the chefs': It grows in 11 large containers next to the tennis court that's part of the seventh-floor Harbor Court hotel and condominium health club.

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