Chef Jeffrey Robinson looks at unused space and envisions squash blossoms and pea shoots. A locavore before it was a movement, he can’t recall ever living in a home without a few acres of vegetables, planted and tended by his Dad.
“As soon as we’d move in, he’d tear up the ground with a rototiller,” notes Robinson, executive chef of the Charleston Marriott’s Saffire restaurant. “My father’s garden supplied us and many of our neighbors.”
The Ohio transplant fully appreciates South Carolina’s long and fruitful growing season. Under his tutelage, Saffire became one of the first restaurants to participate in the Fresh on the Menu initiative. Determined to have his own production garden, and undeterred by the constraints of the nearly 350-room hotel property, Robinson has taken urban farming to its logical extreme.
After conversations with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture about what to grow, Robinson put in the first seedlings last winter – watermelons, squash, leeks, onions, and herbs. The initial plan called for planting in a fleet of boxes atop the hotel roof, but this was abandoned because irrigation was an issue.
With few other options available, Robinson, whose innovations inside the restaurant have won numerous corporate accolades, took his inventive approach outside – commandeering any nook or cranny on the hotel perimeter that looked as if it would support life.
Ornamental flower planters along walkways, lush poolside burms, and green spaces bordering the hotel parking lots now share space with thriving young vegetables, bringing new meaning to “local sourcing” at the restaurant and new inspiration to his kitchen staff.
“Everyone, especially the younger kids in the kitchen, thinks it’s really cool,” says Robinson, whose culinary career includes apprenticeships under Certified Master Chefs Hartmut Handke and Victor Gielisse. “When you’re on the line preparing the ingredients, it’s fun to know where it all comes from – you have more respect for it.”
Robinson likes to let his house-grown ingredients speak for themselves, in simple preparations, with no more than three concentrated flavors. He shares a recipe for a pasta dish showcasing ripe, heirloom tomatoes that requires minimal cooking - a summertime must-have!