All around the country, there are incredible young farmers who are cultivating the soil, growing stunning produce, nourishing their communities, and willingly sharing their hard-earned knowledge with fellow farmers. I'm constantly inspired by these growers, many of whom are just as impressive in the kitchen as they are in the field. In the spirit of sharing the wisdom of these inspiring young farmers (and cooks), I am beginning a Farmbelly interview series called EAT LIKE A FARMER to tell the stories of these pioneering farmers. This series will offer a glimpse into the life of young farmers - a lifestyle that is unpredictable, exhausting, and unendingly challenging, not to mention rewarding and wildly delicious. As the old saying goes, "farmers work like dogs, but eat like kings", and I'd like to think most farmers prefer it that way.
I'm honored to kick off this interview series by introducing Evan Chender, a chef-turned-farmer based just outside of Asheville, NC. Evan earned his BA in Food Culture and Sustainable Agriculture from Vassar College, and went on to become a greenhouse manager at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. After taking on several opportunities both farming and working as a chef in top institutions and restaurants around the world, Evan relocated to Asheville, NC with his wife in May 2012. Evan, known as The Culinary Gardener, currently manages a 8,000 square foot micro farm where he intensively hand tendsover 200 varieties of vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs for some of the best restaurants in Asheville.
A big thanks to Evan for taking the time out of his very busy schedule to share some of his farm and culinary knowledge. Be sure to check out his must-try summer recipe for Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Sheep Feta at the end of the interview. To follow Evan and his farm + culinary adventures, be sure to follow him on instagram @theculinarygardener !
Where is your farm located and what to you grow/produce? My farm is located in Weaverville, NC, 8 miles north of Asheville, NC. I grow many different crops over the course of a year, at least 100 different varieties, but probably close to 200. Lots of greens and edible flowers, but also a little bit of everything. Some of the crops that are growing now that I am particularly excited about are: Japanese cucumbers, trombocino squash, red celtuce, sucrine lettuce, cornflowers, vietnamese and korean perilla, Lady Di runner beans, Alexanders, cardoon, potimarron winter squash, true french sorrel, ardwyna tomato, purple sprouting broccoli, choryoku eggplant, ice lettuce, pennywort, tetragonia, annushka potato, himo togarashi and espellete peppers
Walk us through a typical day on your farm + in your kitchen. A typical day on the farm: get there around 8am. First thing is always doing a walk-through of the garden and keenly observing everything. It's almost like saying good morning to the plants. Then I finally get to work. My main harvest takes place 2 days a week, but this time of year I am harvesting every day, so that is what I will do first. If i'm not harvesting all day, I am working on everything else. Trellising cucumbers or beans, pulling and amending beds, seeding in cells, direct seeding beds for whole plant petite greens (amaranth, orach, quinoa, magenta goosefoot, calendula, extra dwarf bok choi....) transplanting, cultivating, weed wacking, cleaning up. I take one main break for lunch, which is always leftovers from dinner. I'm pretty much hustling the rest of the day. Even when I get home, around 8pm these days, I don't stop because I always make dinner. I never half ass dinner, so we eat around 9pm at the earliest. Then I fall asleep as I take my last bite.
What is your favorite fruit/vegetable grow, and what's your go-to recipe to use it? Potatoes. Go-to recipe: slowly fried in olive oil or animal fat so they steam on the inside and get a crispy shell on the outside. It's like french fries and mashed potatoes in one.
What kitchen tool could you not live without? A good, sharp knife. I have a Togiharu that I like. Not crazy expensive, around $100.
Favorite cookbook? This is weird, but I don't have a favorite. I own lots of cookbooks that I never use or look at. I find most recipes are inaccurate and I find it takes too much brain power for me to follow a recipe. It's easier for me to go stream of consciousness and cook off the cuff.
When cooking, do you typically use recipes or just go by instinct? Always instinct.
Who in your life has been a mentor/teacher for you as a farmer? As a cook? Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to be mentored as a farmer or a cook. I am almost completely self taught. However, I was born with a passion for food and have pursued it my entire life.
How has living on a farm influenced your relationships with family, friends, and your local community? Well, I don't currently live on a farm. I live in downtown Asheville. I'll be moving to a farm with my wife in the next year though. We bought 4 acres of land, also in Weaverville, and we will be building a house and living there as soon as possible. Nevertheless, being a farmer and growing only for chefs has deeply influenced my relationships with the chefs I work with, and the people who are part of the Asheville restaurant community. Some of my best friends are chefs and our personal relationships developed out of our business relationships.
What advice do you have for people who want to get more experience growing their own food + cooking farm fresh produce? My advice is try to grow something you can eat in any way that is feasible for you. If you can't plant a garden, grow something in a pot on your window/fire escape/balcony. Eating food that I have grown myself is where I get my best inspiration.
Share one of your recipes for a simple, farm fresh dish that you can't get enough of this summer:
Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Sheep Feta
- 6oz sheep or sheep/goat feta, go for the stuff aged in brine if you can find it
- 2 lbs cucumbers
- 2 lbs tomatoes
- 1 small shallot
- juice of 2 lemons
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Handful chopped fresh mint
- Fresh chiles to your taste
- 1 ripe sweet pepper
Mince the shallot and combine with lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let that sit while you prepare everything else.
Cut the cucumbers and tomatoes into mixed up sizes and shapes. Toss with 2 tablespoons salt and place in a colander to drain for 20 minutes. This sounds like a lot of salt, but what happens is a brine is created around each piece and the salt penetrates through the flesh without tasting salty. Chop peppers and herbs and combine in a large bowl with feta, lemon juice mixture, olive oil. Drain the cucumbers and tomatoes really well and toss everything together. Eat it immediately or wait - as it sits, it gets better. The juice at the bottom is almost like leche de tigre - super flavorful and not to be wasted!