When a local, European-inspired chef approached Lee Jones at a farmer’s market in Ohio in the 1980s, he and his family had no inkling that their business was about to transform into a globally renowned brand. Chef Iris Bailin asked Lee if the Jones family would be open to growing baby squash with blossoms for a Cleveland restaurant. A subsequent meeting uncovered the need for more than a dozen specialty vegetables — none of which were being grown in the United States.
“Fifteen other farmers had passed on this opportunity, but we decided to take on the challenge,” says Bob Jones Sr. “After several months of in-depth study into these particular vegetables, we felt prepared to start growing them.”
As news spread of the success of the Joneses’ efforts, chefs from Cleveland, Columbus and New York City began contacting the farm about their own artisanal produce needs. Today, The Chef’s Garden provides chefs around the world with seasonal specialty vegetables, microgreens, herbs and edible flowers. Bob Sr. says they owe their success to extraordinary chefs — Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jean-Louis Palladin, to name a few — who generously shared their insights and mentorship.
“Jean-Louis, who had recently come from Europe to open a restaurant at the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC, told us if we could learn to grow vegetables with exceptional flavor and without chemicals, we could help elevate the quality of American food,” says Lee, who has become known worldwide as “Farmer Lee Jones” for his expertise in sustainable agriculture.
30 Years Later, and Still Farming Sustainably
The Jones family took Palladin’s advice seriously and has spent the past three decades perfecting the flavor, appearance, nutrient density and safety of the vegetables they grow on their sustainable 350-acre farm. “We measure success not in yield but in flavor per mouthful and nutrient content,” Lee explains. “The USDA’s dietary guidelines assume that a carrot is a carrot. But the way we handle that carrot — what we do and don’t apply to the plant, the composition of the soil and more — makes it much healthier than mass-produced carrots.”
Bob Jones Jr. emphasizes The Chef’s Garden’s commitment to safety, innovation and efficiency. “Our team understands the depth of our responsibility to chefs and their customers. Stringent food safety training and practices, Lean manufacturing principles and state-of-the-art technologies all contribute to client satisfaction and the sustainability of our business.”
The farm’s sizable R&D operation provides its staff of agronomists and horticulturists with resources to continually experiment with new ideas, equipment and scientific advances. Chefs are invited to experiment, too, at The Culinary Vegetable Institute, an offshoot of The Chef’s Garden featuring a 1,500-square-foot kitchen; a dining room seating 90 guests; accommodations for visiting chefs and their teams; a culinary library; a root cellar; a wine cellar; and access to experimental vegetable, forest and herb gardens.
“The Chef’s Garden is an exciting business with a unique model that builds meaningful partnerships between chefs and farmers,” says PNC Agricultural Banking Relationship Manager James Pittman, who works closely with the Jones leadership team. “Our team at PNC is delighted to offer ideas and support to help Bob Sr., Lee and Bob Jr. achieve their vision for the business. Early on, we encouraged them to adopt enterprises analysis, for example, because we saw its potential to help fuel their growth.”
Lee says that PNC’s ideas are much appreciated by the Jones trio and their 160-person staff. “We enjoy working with our banking team and have a wonderful partnership,” he says. “PNC provides us with insights into the industry and the economy that help us continue growing and moving forward.”