Chefs Who Know What 'Fresh' Is
To Elaine Martin and Dorsey Barger, gardening is the heartbeat of their Austin restaurant
AUSTIN, TEXAS — AT the Eastside Cafe, patrons not only dine on garden-fresh vegetables, they stroll around the garden where much of the restaurant's produce is organically grown.Other restaurants "buy from local growers, and that's nice," says co-owner Dorsey Barger, "but their customers don't have the experience of walking through [the garden and] feeling the hairs on the yellow squash." Elaine Martin, the other owner, adds: "A lot of people don't know what an eggplant looks like on the vine. So that's real exciting to them." The idea of providing that experience changed their future. Three years ago, Ms. Barger and Ms. Martin were preparing to put their years of restaurant experience into a place of their own - in New Mexico. "The economy here was so bad," Martin recalls, "we figured anybody who opened a restaurant in Austin would be nuts." So bad, in fact, that one winter night in 1988 the two women were the only customers in a restaurant that occupied a charming old house. The grounds featured a patio and garden - an acre in all. "We sat around thinking what a great facility this was, and having a fantasy about what we would do with this," Martin says. Three weeks later that establishment had closed. The property was put up for rent. "We said, 'Let's go for it.' You only get a chance like this once in a lifetime," says Martin. They signed the lease in mid-February and opened a month later. "Just a restaurant in an old house wasn't the whole deal for us. Having that garden out there was really important," Martin says. But with Barger primarily responsible for management and Martin in the kitchen, the garden didn't live up to its potential until they found Betty Perez to care for it. Ms. Perez had been a manager of Austin's community vegetable garden plots for 13 years. Today, visitors find the garden flush with produce. Rather than laying it out in neat rows, Perez sees no harm in letting tomatoes rub elbows with squash, or with carrots and peppers that crowd against cantaloupes and beans. She also permits "volunteer" wildflowers and even weeds. Some of these attract wasps, which are useful as pollinators and prey on insect pests. Bugs are also kept down by purple martins whose house towers over the garden. There are herbs: mint, fennel, rosemary, thyme, and purple basil. There's even one called Texas tarragon (or Mexican marigold mint), which is used like tarragon but has a sweeter, licorice-like flavor. In other seasons the garden will grow lettuce, spinach, leeks, onions, and broccoli. "I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it," says Texas Monthly magazine's restaurant reviewer (who must remain anonymous). ve been there on a nice summer eve. It was very pleasant on the patio, with fireflies in the air." The Cafe would likely be on the reviewer's "second tier" of dining choices for being "a tad overpriced." The reviewer, who last visited the restaurant more than a year ago, appreciated the fresh ingredients but found that some of the preparation was "pedestrian." This writer lunched on a superb carrot pasta with scallops in pesto, artichoke hearts, and Roma tomatoes. The basil for the pesto and the tomatoes came from the garden. Every bite brought together different flavors for an ongoing taste sensation. A side dish of acorn squash, also garden-grown, was simple and tasty. Although the garden provides "loads and loads" of produce from May through October, it doesn't come close to providing all that the restaurant requires, Barger says. Still, "the garden has saved more money than I care to imagine." For instance, because of water rationing in California, farmers there have been concentrating on growing more profitable citrus and reducing their tomato crops. That caused the price of a case of tomatoes to quadruple in June to $35. Other restaurants are being pinched, but the Eastside Cafe has grown so many tomatoes that it hasn't bought any for more than seven weeks. "There's so many tomatoes, [the bugs] are getting a few, and that's OK," Perez says, hefting a washtub-sized wicker basket of tomatoes to her shoulder. The restaurant used to buy a pound of basil every other day, but hasn't done so in months. Rather, the problem may be what to do with the cornucopia. "It infuses a lot of creativity into what you're doing," Martin says. "It's a challenge sometimes to use all the things up that you get, because things are so seasonal. All the sudden you have five pounds of basil." As a chef, "It's really exciting to be able to go out [to the garden] and see your product," she adds. A lot of times, if you call a produce company and order something, you don't know what it's going to look like when it gets there." "On Monday, I come in and say, 'Hey, Betty, what are we going to have this week?' And she says, 'Well, I'm going to have a ton of eggplant. So they create a southwestern ratatouille. The Eastside Cafe likes to make the most of the vegetables it grows. "We don't want to take a zucchini and chop it up and put it in our enchiladas, because it's not that exciting. We want the greatest impact," Barger says. "With yellow squash, for example, [we] peel [it], blanch it, cut off the ends, slice it in half, and oftentimes roll it around in a garlic and olive oil and herb mixture, and then grill it and top it with some sort of sauce we're creating at the time." The clientele has helped design the menu by raving about specials created by Martin or by Ruth Carter, a songwriter who is a creative chef on the side for the restaurant. Customer favorites are added to the permanent menu - now four times its original size. The restaurant has lately been pulling in 1,400 to 1,600 people a week, almost double the rate of last year, thanks to a new advertisement: "Some restaurants talk about fresh food.... We grow it." "People are just into 'fresh, Martin says.