Local restaurants shop in their backyards

by Amy Kingsley

Kerrie Thomas pauses for a moment to run into the kitchen at Bistro Sofia, a restaurant near Guilford College where he wears several hats: general manager, wine steward and gardener among them. When he returns, his hands cradle two enormous tomatoes in offbeat hues – purple and yellow – and an acorn squash.

These beauties are the bounty of an onsite organic garden that is at this moment being nourished by an afternoon thunderstorm. Good for tomatoes, perhaps, but not so good for a journalist seeking pictures and a tour of the place. For the moment I’ve settled on alternating my gaze between the vivid green outside and the produce here in front of me.

Bistro Sofia is one of a handful of local dining establishments that obtain much of their vegetables from local suppliers. And they are in the avant-garde among city eateries when it comes to the proximity of that production.

“This is about as local as it gets,” Thomas says.

Indeed. Diners can even eat out on the brick patio and watch as Thomas or a member of the kitchen staff wades into the greenery to snip fresh herbs or gather ingredients.

Of course, not all of their produce comes from the six raised beds and thickets of tomato plants behind the restaurant. Carrots and onions are just two examples of foods Chef Beth Kihznerman requires in quantities too vast for the garden to sustain.

“If we can’t get something from the garden then we try to get produce that’s organic,” Thomas says. “And if we can’t get organic, then we try to get local produce.”

The garden has been part of the restaurant since its opening in 1999. At the time, the backyard of what was to become Bistro Sofia was filled with gravel and trash. The duty of transforming the wasteland into a nurturing space fell to Thomas.

Now the garden produces heirloom tomatoes, peppers, beets, braising greens, raspberries, strawberries and acorn squash. The herb beds include thyme, sage, chives, dill and a thriving rosemary bush.

This year’s weather, the cool spring and comparatively mild summer, has been particularly kind to lettuces, Thomas says. All the rain, in addition to creating a bumper crop of weeds, has been a boon to the tomato harvest. Thomas’ Purple Cherokee is roughly softball-sized.

Not all the years have been so kind to Thomas and his garden. Some early gardening experiments – like Chinese long beans, kohlrabi and tomatillos – failed.

“There are just some things the soil wasn’t right for,” Thomas says.

Of course, Bistro Sofia isn’t the only restaurant in town that grows its own vegetables and buys from local farmers. Bert’s Seafood Grill has a garden onsite that is mostly decorative, but a local wine wholesaler grows beets, Yukon gold potatoes, Roma and German Johnson tomatoes for the restaurant. Owner Drew Lacklen culls herbs including basil, oregano, thyme and an undisclosed hot pepper for a secret hot sauce from his own home garden.

In addition to the more high-end places, Nikki Dale-Oaster from the down-to-earth take-out joint Hogan’s Groovy Gourmet also grows some of her own herbs and tomatoes.

All the restaurants that depend on local farmers for produce, meat and dairy tailor their menus to reflect the season’s produce. At Bistro Sofia, the beets are beginning to ripen in their beds under the soil.

Since the rain has slackened a little, Thomas leads me on a tour of the garden. When he reaches the plot dedicated to beets, he pulls one out of the ground. Its skin is as shiny and red as a cinnamon disc. Soon this beet and its brethren will be starring in a featured appetizer, Thomas tells me.

Not that including seasonal ingredients on a menu is a revolutionary idea. Bay area chef Alice Waters rose to prominence two decades ago by preaching the gospel of local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients. Anything less, she said, both harmed the environment and shortchanged customers.

“We’re on the same page as Alice Waters but it’s not like Beth [Kihznerman] looked to her to see what to do,” Thomas said.

Still, the idea of sustainability guides much of what they do at Bistro Sofia. Kihznerman has always purchased seafood caught using sustainable fishing practices. That means shipping some of the main course components Fed-Ex from Maine.

“It’s not easy,” Thomas says. “It would be easy to forget about all that. But if we’re trying to look to the future, we have to consider it.”

As much trouble as sustainability can be, their allegiance to the idea has earned them a local following among slow food adherents. But those aren’t the only people who flock to this restaurant housed in a white brick domicile.

Area gourmands and oenophiles line up for the periodic wine dinners, multi-course affairs with a special menu of foods, each paired with some stellar vintage from the wine cellar. Like procuring environmentally friendly ingredients, the dinners can be a challenge for the staff. But for the 30 to 40 regulars they are something else entirely.

“They are kind of a present to our customers,” Thomas says.

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