• sondra bernstein

from the farm: Chef John Toulze on the Real Meaning of “Seasonality”

There’s no doubt that a chef ’s life is a busy one, and Executive Chef John Toulze is a man with a very full plate. So much so, it often seems as if he might have discovered the secret to being in two places at once.

He will, in one moment, be creating, tasting, and tooling with new recipes for the girl & the fig and the fig café, overhauling our baking program to bring fresh buns in-house, brewing batches of barrel-aged vinegar, while sourcing obscure herbs and tinctures to prepare house-made bitters, writing crop plans, and curing charcuterie. Seriously. All at once. Suffice to say that when Chef John is in the building, sparks are flying.

You’ve heard the saying, “the hardest work of farming is the waiting,” and it might seem that for a man who moves at break-neck speed, the pace of growing one’s own produce from from seed each season would be uncomfortably slow. Not so. Toulze is passionate about farming, as much as he is about understanding the true meaning of seasonality, and what it means to cook seasonally for the restaurants.

I was happy to steal a few moments of the chef ’s time this week, to ask him what he has enjoyed most about farming, and some of what he’s learned in the past five years of the “fig farm project.”

Q: How do you decide which vegetables to grow in a season?

“In the beginning it was a combination of curiosity, ambition, and ignorance. We had no idea what, when, and how much to plant. Now, with 6 years of experience, we plant things that we have experience with and know we can use. We always try a few new things, or do things a little differently, but overall we are trying to grow produce to use.”

Q: How does the farm change or influence your approach in the kitchen?

“The farm has generated a true understanding of what seasonally means. Prior to having the farm, I thought cooking seasonal meant tomatoes in the summer, peas in the spring and hard squash in the fall. I no longer have any preconceived ideas that any item will be available at any time other than when nature chooses. There have been times when we have had pears, tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, apples, Delicata squash & persimmons in abundance all at the same time. Putting these items on the same menu before we started farming would have seemed the opposite of seasonal, when in fact it was as seasonal as you can get. Put simply, I have learned that cooking seasonally means using what is ripe, not what I think should be.”

Q: What’s your favorite thing to grow and why?

"I don’t have a strong preference overall, but if forced to choose I would say squash. I marvel at anything that grow a foot in one day.”
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