Crate to plate

In a stalled construction site, urban farmers grow ingredients for their restaurant

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Basil, tomatoes, bronze fennel, okra, eggplants: such crops are usually grown on pastoral farms in the countryside or the gardens of leafy suburbs. But one Manhattan restaurant has taken the farm-to-table craze literally, building a vegetable farm in its concrete backyard.

New Yorkers hate wasting space, so when construction stalled on one of the two towers of the Alexandria Center, the Riverpark restaurant decided to make the most of the site. The restaurant, founded by Tom Colicchio, head judge on the popular Top Chef television series, serves classic US fare. Its menu is packed with bold flavours and, of course, local produce.

Riverpark is tucked away on a barren stretch of the city’s Kips Bay neighbourhood, overlooking the East River from the ground floor of an office building that houses several life sciences companies. Its farm grows 168 varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruits across 15,000 square feet.

“This is the first of its kind; when we asked for permits to do it, the city was like, what is it?” says Sisha Ortúzar, head chef at Riverpark.

The farm sits on top of a parking garage, with concrete rather than earth beneath the urban farmers’ feet. But Thomas Kosbau, founder of ORE Design + Technology, the architects, decided to use more than 7,000 recycled milk crates filled with soil to provide fertile, and portable, beds for the plants.

“Milk crates are 130 years old, developed through their own kind of ergonomic design, but they were perfect technology transfer,” Kosbau says. “It was natural.”

This was the innovation that allowed the urban “pop-up” farm to succeed. Their ergonomics allow them to be moved easily to catch the sunlight and their holes, combined with a dense fabric, allow the plants to breathe without the soil washing away.

The Riverpark farm is a moveable feast and will eventually relocate once the second tower of the Alexandria Center gets off the ground. The portability of the milk crate planters was tested last year, when Hurricane Irene threatened to submerge New York City. In less than five hours, the Riverpark team moved the farm indoors.

Two Brooklyn-based farmers irrigate the crops with a hose and supervise the harvest. During spring and summer, the farm produces roughly 80 per cent of the restaurant’s vegetables, making it a sustainable project that pays for itself. To feed the crops, the farmers use refuse from the restaurant, such as coffee grounds and the shells of eggs and oysters, to put minerals back in to the soil.

Ortúzar says the farm makes him think differently about his menu. The farm attempts to grow produce that is harder to find commercially, but sometimes things go awry. For example, last year an abundance of eggplant production led to a menu with five different eggplant dishes. “As fresh as everything here is, since it is not genetically modified, it has to be used fast,” he explains.

Urban farms have been sprouting in New York. Groups such as Gotham Greens and BrightFarms have developed rooftop farms in Brooklyn and Queens. The city is also considering a new green zone that would allow for more greenhouses to be built on top of commercial buildings.

Riverpark’s creators think that the portable farm model can be applied to other places where food is scarce, space is limited or construction projects have been halted.

During the daytime, the Riverpark farm is sometimes used for school classes and workshops, where visitors can learn about mulching, composting, pruning and even preparing crops for winter. In the evening, the farm is lit with accent lights and becomes an attraction, drawing discriminating diners to the edge of the city to eat amid a slice of nature.

The future of the farm remains unclear, as the rest of the Alexandria Center is getting ready to rise. But the farm’s portability is part of its purpose.

As Ortúzar says, “Even if we only have it for two years, at least we had it.”

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