A Chef's Garden

If you're traveling in the West and have a chance to swing through Phoenix, Arizona, there's a place you should stop in and see--especially if you're a gardener with a taste for the unusual. It just happens to be located at one of the state's premiere resort destinations: The Pointe Hilton Resort at Tapatio Cliffs in Phoenix. As soon as you drive in, you'll begin to notice that things are a bit out of the ordinary.

For starters, there are artichokes in the restaurant parking lot. (In Phoenix, in mid-May.) And you just might see those marigolds blooming on the patio again--in your evening salad. Likewise for the roses, nasturtiums, hollyhocks and pansies. They are planted not only for their beauty--their flowers are destined to become edible enhancements. But these are mere appetizers for what is yet to come. The main course is a short walk down the hill in one of the narrow canyons. There, hidden amid the sheltering native trees, lies a series of beautifully terraced planting beds brimming with herbs, flowers, vegetables and berries. If it's early in the morning, chances are you'll come upon the garden's creator and caretaker, Erasmo Kamnitzer, or "Razz" as he is known about these parts, the master chef de cuisine and master gardener at the Different Pointe of View Restaurant.

When I visited Razz, it was a good thing I was wearing my tennis shoes. I scrambled to keep up, winding my way between the narrow retaining walls that hold the soil in terraced planting beds. Chef Razz had a story for each plant, whether it was how it came to be included in the garden or its historical place in food lore. Hibiscus flowers, he told me, were believed to be a floral fountain of youth in ancient Egypt and were used in baths to increase longevity. Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosoides), a strong-scented native herb, has been brought from a local riverbank to reseed and establish itself in one small bed. Three-year-old pepper plants transplanted from the tiny original garden outside the restaurant door thrive in the lacy shade beneath the mesquites. Razz calls these peppers "hot-sob" (so-named because of their fiery disposition and what people do if they eat too many!). California poppies started from seed two years ago have reseeded to add splashes of yellow-gold throughout the garden. Razz lets them grow where they will--he loves the spicy taste of the flowers in salads and sausages. At the topmost terraced bed, you'll find a rather eclectic plant combination: loganberries, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, rose-scented geraniums, blackberries, raspberries, nopalito cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) and a Mexican lime tree. All will have a starring or supporting role in a future entree.

Other notables include scarlet runner beans--the brilliant flowers are used in salads or as a vegetable, with the seeds sown directly in the garden in February for late spring to early summer harvests--and fresh garden tomatoes, which go in as transplants: 'Big Boy', 'Green Zebra', 'Italian Plum' and 'Sweet 100', to name a few. Miniature patty pan squash with matching blossoms receive raves from dinner guests, as do the sweet corn varieties, such as 'Kandy Korn'.

Herbs, of course, are a must in a gourmet chef's garden: anise basil, chives, rosemary, thyme and fennel. Chamomile, horehound, tansy, mints and sages practically grow wild. Edible flowers abound: hollyhocks, calendulas, marigolds, Cardinal sage and nasturtiums are favorites.

Small Beginnings

Razz's 4,000 square feet of gourmet chef's paradise didn't happen overnight or even develop from a master plan. The original chef's garden began with a 3- by 5-foot raised bed, located a stone's throw from the restaurant kitchen door. This little plot produced precious fresh herbs and vegetables, but demand soon surpassed what the garden could provide. It whetted Razz's appetite for more; more varieties, more volume and a more dependable source of fresh, quality vegetabl herbs and fruits.

A 1992 visit to Fetzer Vineyards in northern California's wine country provided further incentive. While at the vineyards, Razz spent time with John Ash, Fetzer's chef and culinary director, touring (and falling in love with) the chef's four-acre organic garden, laden with more than 1,000 kinds of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.

Inspired, Razz returned to Phoenix and, using funds saved from his cooking classes, began constructing the garden. He selected a site located smack-dab in the middle of a steep, narrow canyon just down the hill from the restaurant. With help from two of his prep cooks, he built a series of terraces and raised beds from the multitude of rocks in the poor canyon soil. The soil mixtures vary for the numerous planting beds, depending on what's being grown. Some planting beds are left natural to grow native herbs such as the Mexican tarragon, tansy and epazote. In others, the soil is amended with silt, sand and compost to improve the growth of garden vegetables and flowers.

Three years later, the garden is a beauty. Bright sunshine filters through the lacy leaves of mesquite and palo verde that arch out protectively over the garden. Naturally rugged hills and boulders of the Tapatio Cliffs serve as a dramatic backdrop, while the native desert plants that surround the garden offer their own unique colors and textures. Razz envisions a time when the garden gradually blends into the desert, the herbs and flowers reseeding, the berries and vines rambling to escape the confines of the garden. Or perhaps it will be the desert plants that find homes in the terraced beds.

The garden thrives from early spring (February in Phoenix's low desert climate) until late fall (October). The majority of the garden remains fallow November through January, something Razz hopes to modify to increase productivity. However, this downtime gives the garden a chance to "rest", and Razz and his crew get caught up on chores such as collecting and drying the woody stems of herbs for use in the restaurant smoker.

Winter is also the time to collect seeds. Some are spread into the surrounding desert to naturalize, some go into new planting beds and others are stored in envelopes to be planted later on. The soil in the annual planting beds is turned over and amendments are added for drainage and nutrients. By the time February rolls around, it's planting season again. Many vegetable and herb seeds go directly in the ground, with seedlings set out for a staggered harvest. Additional seedlings and new crops are planted each month through the summer to ensure a steady stream of varied produce to the kitchen.

Razz is well on his way to developing his own version of Fetzer's gardens. Currently, he grows more than 125 varieties of fresh herbs, vegetables, edible flowers, berries, fruit trees and native plants. But plans are in the making to expand the garden to include some 250 plant varieties. And then there's the co-op garden he's planning with area chefs that will become a dependable source of quality vegetables, herbs and fruits.

All of Razz's crops are grown organically. He believes "Nature takes its own course" and does not want to interfere with the garden's natural balance by using chemicals. To combat whiteflies, he plants broccoli raab as a host plant on the perimeter of his garden. "The whiteflies love it and congregate there, leaving most of my other garden plants alone." Ladybugs are also released to combat aphids. Other than that, the garden practically runs on its own, and from the look of things, that's how it should be. Plants are often left to reseed, and volunteers are allowed to grow to see what they will become.

Late this spring, two years after seed was sown directly into one of the planting beds, lavender and cilantro seedlings appeared, much to Razz's delight. "I keep a map of the garden, but sometimes I forget what I've planted. I have to l the plants grow for a while before I decide if it's a weed or a crop! I think we're crazy, sometimes, the things we try. But that's what makes it so much fun--and the fact that everybody told us we couldn't do it."

Beating the Heat

Conventional wisdom has it that it's difficult to grow a wide range of vegetables, berries and herbs in a harsh desert climate. With long, hot summers and daytime temperatures over 100oF for months at a time, heat becomes the enemy. But the garden's unique location and microclimate change the rules. Steep ridges on the east and west sides of the narrow garden provide blessed shade, as do the wide-spreading canopies of native trees. Razz also spaces plants closer together than what is usually recommended. The plants shade one another, reducing heat stress and water needs. Tomatoes and peppers in particular respond to this practice, preventing the fruits from becoming sunburned. An irrigation system waters the garden twice a day during summer and once a day in the cooler spring and fall months.

Most people thought the garden would fail, thinking the desert conditions too tough to raise the crops that Razz envisioned. But Razz's philosophy toward gardening (and life) is steadfast; "You have to give it a try. Don't begin anything with limitations."

Reaping the Harvest

Throw out your preconceived notions about what you can (or can't) grow or cook successfully--Razz will open your eyes to the opportunities. He wants people to notice the beauty of their everyday surroundings. "It's all about how you use the things around you," says Razz. "When fall comes, people leave the desert to go to the nearby mountains to enjoy the change of seasons. You have that happening in your garden on a regular basis," he observes. To illustrate his point, he plucks some faded parsley from a nearby planting. The golden yellow sprigs would likely be discarded by most gardeners, but when combined with fresh green sprigs, they make an unusual, striking garnish. Hedoes the same with arugula that is past prime, pausing to admire leaves that have taken on the bronze and gold hues of autumn.

Many times the garden bounty writes the evening menu, so to speak, with Razz deciding on the evening specials during his morning tour. When I visited in late spring, the 'Tricolor Pink' hollyhocks were blooming particularly well, so hollyhock blossoms--stuffed with an herbed cheese mixture, breaded and deep-fried in olive oil--appeared on the evening menu. (I tried them, and they were delicious.) His creations are often hot topics of conversation at dinner. "When the the head waiter comes and tells the customers we've got stuffed hollyhocks with jalapeno pepper sauce, they are excited to try it. And it gives them something to talk about when they go home," Razz notes. It's a point of view on eating and gardening that's worth a second look (and helping).

Stuffed Hollyhocks with Jalapeno Sauce

This makes a tasty side dish or appetizer and is an especially good brunch item.

1/4 cup mixed herbs (marjoram, basil, parsley, cilantro, chives, savory, tarragon, mint), chopped
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
salt & pepper to taste
25 hollyhock blossoms (approximately)
1 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
olive oil

In a mixing bowl, combine herbs, cheeses and salt and pepper. Stuff each hollyhock with the mixture. Dredge the stuffed blossoms in flour, then dip in beaten eggs and coat with bread crumbs. Fry in hot oil until golden brown. Top with the Jalapeno Sauce (below). Serves 5.

Jalapeno Sauce:

1 teaspoon corn oil
1 tablespoon chopped jalapeno peppers
1/4 cup chopped tomatillos
1/4 cup chopped yellow onions
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro
2 cups chicken stock
salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, sautee ingredients except chicken stock until soft. Add chicken stock; bring to boil. Simmer for 30 minutes or until reduced by one-fourth. Puree in food processor until smooth.

Note: To make a richer, greener-looking sauce, let mixture cool to room temperature and puree with 1/4 cup fresh spinach leaves.

Scott Millard is a publisher, writer, photographer, and gardener living in Tucson, Arizona.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/NationalGardening

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