The Farmer Chef
Planting to Plating: Volare chef grows his own ingredients
When Josh Moore went house hunting in 2005, he wanted a historic Highlands home, a fixer-upper upon which he would prove his considerable handyman skills. But when the Volare chef’s wishes didn’t match his modest budget, he turned the search to a 10-acre plot near Taylorsville, Kentucky—a 45-minute drive oneway from Volare—that included a 110-yearold farmhouse.
Moore was eager to hammer, patch and refurbish to his liking, but equally appealing were the property’s flat fields, fertilized naturally by thousands of dairy cows over the decades.
“The soil here is incredible,” said Moore, gesturing to his manicured one-acre garden. “All that time as a dairy farm added up. Anything grows here.”
Moore works the plot with his Ford N-8 tractor, a nearly 70-year-old workhorse made for small farms like his. The roomy rows between plants would be the envy of any urban gardener, but their width is necessary for the machine to maneuver without mangling the heirloom tomatoes, squashes, broccoli, cauliflower and other plants that, when harvested, go to Volare.
“I eat some and some goes to friends and family, but the majority of it goes to the restaurant,” said Moore. While he sells the produce to Volare, “I still lose a little on it overall. For me, though, gardening is therapeutic, so I don’t mind. I could garden eight hours nonstop if I didn’t have so much else to do.”
Moore began cooking in 1993 at Vincenzo’s Italian Restaurant, before moving on to Porcini, another Italian restaurant just up Frankfort Avenue from Volare. For seven years he worked under executive chef John Plymale, “who taught me so much. That guy was the best mentor anyone could have in a kitchen,” not to mention being an equally compulsive gardener.
In 2006, the same year he took the executive chef’s post at Volare, Moore started his first garden in Taylorsville, planting a few dozen tomato plants and some other vegetables. It didn’t take long before the garden expanded two acres, though this year he’s dialed it back to half that size to balance his busy schedule.
“When it’s like this, in summer, I probably spend 20 hours a week gardening,” he said, acknowledging he spends about 60 hours a week at Volare. This year’s 150 heirloom tomato plants—in the ground are Green Zebras, Great Whites, Yellow Pears, Sungolds, Mr. Stripeys and Gold Brandywine, all started from seed—represent about 75% of last year’s total. “It’s a labor of love, but it’s still work.”
On the opposite site of the field behind his house is an orchard of peach, plum, cherry and apple trees, as well as raspberry, blackberry and black raspberry bushes. He preserves very little of the fruit, preferring to serve what he picks at peak ripeness. “My favorite dessert of the year is grappa, duck egg custard tart with sour cherries from the orchard,” said Moore, who garnishes his desserts with edible roses from the farm. “We’ll do berry cobblers and apple crumb cakes and garnish dishes with berries and roses. … I have made freezer jams before with strawberries, but not a lot of it.”
Chef home grown — even in the city
Where many draw calm from the noiseless routine of gardening, Mark Stevens’ hyperactive mind finds the silence deafening.
So the co-owner of Stevens and Stevens Delicatessen broke the silence a few years ago by keeping some hens in his East Louisville backyard. He used their fresh eggs at home and in the restaurant, but the flock grew to nearly three dozen birds, including some vocal roosters, forcing Stevens to move them to his in-laws’ remote property near Taylorsville Lake. His flock flourishing, he created further buzz at the bucolic retreat by installing four beehives on the property last year.
“The whole thing came out of a romantic notion of living off the land in the modern world — as much as that can be accomplished living in the city,” Stevens said with a laugh. The recent mild winter and early spring has him predicting a bumper crop of honey this fall. Plus he ponied up the dough for a pricey centrifugal extractor. “I’m guessing conservatively we can get between 150 and 200 pounds of honey this year. We’ll use most of it in the deli and give a lot of it to friends. And someday I’d like to sell some at farmers’ markets.”
This year, Christopher Seckman moved the opposite way — from the country to the city — with gardens that help supply produce to his two North End Café restaurants. Two dry summers in a row drove wildlife near the Shelbyville farm to eat most of his plants in search of moisture. “We went from years when there was more than we could handle to years when we got nothing,” Seckman said. “We were considering doing some deer-proof fencing, but instead we decided to bring them in here.”
As in to three backyards along lower Frankfort Avenue. Seckman called realtor Walt Jones, also a partner in North End Café, the green thumb in the operation and the person doing most of the management of the urban plots. To fully utilize the smaller spaces, they tilled the soil, planted lettuce and kale seeds, harvested those this spring and followed with tomato plants in the same areas.
“We’ve harvested all the greens, and now we just have tomatoes instead of weeds,” Seckman said. “It’s much easier to manage these plots in town, too. It’s nice to just walk out back and garden some instead of driving so far.” Porcini executive chef John Plymale still likes the drive to the Oldham County town of Ballardsville, where he manages a one-acre garden with 350 tomato plants, 300 basil plants and countless squash vines.
“But that’s just Garden 1; Mom and I have Garden 2 at the YMCA in Buckner,” Plymale said. “They have a community garden there, and we got eight plots. It’s fun to do that with her.”
In the late winter, the pair started hundreds of seedlings “in her bright and sunny kitchen” and transplanted them this spring. Plymale, who blames his mother for his gardening addiction, brings about half the season’s bounty to Porcini, gives about a quarter of it to family and friends and takes the rest in gift baskets to good customers.
“I love it when customers start asking about the tomato dinner we do every year,” Plymale said. “We’ve got one guy who asks about it and then programs it into his cell phone. He’s hardcore.”