By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
The farm-to-table restaurant movement is nothing new, but a couple of regional entrepreneurs have added their own twist.
Restaurateurs Paul and Wendy Hamilton recently expanded their “tower-to-table” operation to ensure that the produce they use is about as fresh as it gets. As in, next-door fresh.
The Hamiltons own a string of restaurants in St. Louis — operations that a lot of Metro East people have crossed the river to enjoy. Among them are Vin de Set, PW’s Pizza, 1111 Mississippi, 21st Street Brewers Bar and the just-opened Charleville Brewing Co. and Tavern.
The couple recently built and opened a micro-farming operation next door to Vin de Set at 21st Street and Chouteau Avenue. Called Hamilton Farms, it’s essentially a small greenhouse filled with tall, molded towers designed to grow a mix of dinner table produce.
The Hamiltons graciously sent an invitation to the facility’s dedication, and I was impressed at what I saw.
The Tower Gardens are vertical, aeroponics systems, with pods that allow seedlings to be inserted and grown. The plants are said to grow three times faster and produce 30 percent more crops with 98 percent less water than traditional agriculture.
Each tower features a lower-level reservoir that holds about 20 gallons of a nutrient solution. The fluid is pumped to the top and then drains back down, showering the plants and then allowing them to be exposed to air, 15 minutes at a time. The process is continuous and mostly automated. The plant roots are never constantly immersed, which makes the process different from hydroponics.
Among the tower-grown produce are kale, lettuce, chard, fennel, kohlrabi, squash, asparagus, basil, oregano and mustard greens. The Hamiltons say the system is designed for just about everything that’s not a root vegetable (beets, radishes, carrots, etc.). They’ve opted not to plant as many tomatoes and peppers because they have to be hand-pollenated and because the darn things “take over” the tower.
The towers, which are widely available on line, are designed to be built just about anywhere, from parking lots to rooftops. Many are used in educational settings.
Five years ago, Hamilton installed some of them on the roof of Vin de Set. Then, he added some at the entrance to 1111 Mississippi, in Lafayette Square.
“We figured out how to do it, what worked well and then took it to the next level, which is what you’re looking at now,” Hamilton told me.
The state-of-the-art, indoor setting allows for faster, more efficient growth. Many restaurants, of course, will buy produce from points far away simply because of availability. The Hamiltons have opted for fresh produce that’s winter proof, and right next door.
“I don’t know what you know about produce, but once it’s picked it’s never going to be as good as the second it’s picked,” he said.
Big farms are often forced to use enhancements to keep products fresh. Hamilton Farms workers simply have to pluck theirs off a tower — once each day. Vin de Set and 1111 Mississippi have begun Tower to Table dinners featuring items picked the same day.
Hamilton grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He said he spent his entire teen years trying to figure out a way to get off the farm. Now, he’s doing everything to bring the farm home.
Hamilton said he would love to add a commissary market, in which they will be able to butcher meats and make cheese, pasta, ice cream and more. Products, including unused greens from the greenhouse, would be sold to the public.
I’ve never seen restaurateurs so involved with sustainability, and I’d love to see such techniques expand in Southern Illinois. It’s a modern twist on an old, old concept. And there’s plenty of room for growth.