COOKBOOK NOOK / The Garden Chef

Leah Jorgensen Jean

My greatest passions extend winemaking. Nourishment has been the cog in the purpose wheel for me for as long as I can remember. My mother was a career dietician – and an excellent cook. And when my father (also an excellent cook) and I were both diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease, I became more interested in how the digestive system works, and how to nourish the body in all stages of life.

I went on to get a postgraduate degree in Holistic Nutrition right after I completed my degree in Enology, the science of winemaking. Nearly ten years later, I’m now enrolled in a Herbalism certificate program. So much of my life is based on the seasons, a gentle dip into homesteading, and our magnificent home garden plays a significant role in all of that and in the relationship between food, wine, nourishment and medicine.

We cook straight from the garden at this time of year. This is something both my husband and I were taught. So, when you hear buzz words in food like local and seasonal ingredients we just know this to be normal food sourcing from our backyard in the north Willamette Valley.

A few years ago, I got involved with a Portland-based non-profit, Growing Gardens, that’s all about food justice. From my education in Holistic Nutrition, I became well aware of food deserts and the real struggle for lower income communities to source healthy food options. Historically, you wouldn’t see a mainstream grocery store or even a farmer’s market in poorer communities. Options often were limited to mini markets at gas stations, drug stores with a few rows of processed, packaged foods, and maybe a Walmart or Target. This inequity in food sourcing is a major problem for many underserved communities since this totally hinders struggling households from feeding their families healthy, nourishing foods.

That’s why I love Growing Gardens and their mission to “get everyone in Oregon growing gardens”. “At Growing Gardens, we envision an Oregon where every home has equal access to fresh produce and a sincere desire to understand, participate in, and improve our local food system.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the preciousness, exclusivity and privilege of fine dining – even food fetishing – and so many cookbooks follow suit. But the best foods in the world are the ones based in peasant roots, based in necessity of the season, based in using all edible parts of an ingredient with intentions to extend the harvest, to preserve, to avoid waste. Regional cultural expressions of working with the garden is the stuff that builds mighty bridges. Simple ingredients and simple cooking is what fuels the culinary artist to create simple masterpieces with great inspiration and a sophisticated level of understanding what works well to lure all the senses. It’s part alchemy and part common sense.

I couldn’t think of a better cookbook to kick off my online cookbook reviews – with my cozy new Field Notes subcategory Cookbook Nook. Why review cookbooks? I recently took a creative writing course on storytelling through cookbooks. I have a cookbook in the works. It takes me a minute to crank out some of my most passionate ideas, but this one has sat with me for a few years. The course helped me to organize my stories and figure out how to infuse old family recipes into a kind of culinary quilt, a garden, if you will, imbued with my habit of blending dual heritage recipes into creative fusion food. I am obsessed with good cookbooks – and my favorite ones tell great stories. At the root of every great cookbook is a garden and a storyteller.

I came across a most beautiful cookbook at one of my favorite sanctuaries here in Oregon wine country – Durant at Red Ridge Farms. The book, The Garden Chef: Recipes and Stories from Plant to Plate, was complied and published by Phaidon, the premier global publisher of the creative arts.

The finely textured paper book cover in its dreamy shade of green goddess overpowered me like Oberon wielding power over Puck and Titania. So much magic happens in the garden.

As I sipped on a glass of puckering pink wine, my senses euphorically awakened with stunning images of plates with names like “Potatoes and Tubers of A Thousand Colors”, “Cured Halibut with Kohlrabi, Nasturtium, Mizuna, and Salted Angelica Seeds”, “Spinach and Pink Lime”, “Tomato Martini, Garden Flowers, Saffron” and “Farm Salad with All the Seeds, All the Flowers, And Green Goddess”.

I am obsessed with aesthetics. I love simple lines, color pallets based on the natural world, and the playful dichotomy of light and dark – like dappled light and shadowy dark. I prefer imperfect shapes with distinctive features. Show me a crazy carrot and I’ll show you a shimmering crudite of wild carrot that might as well be made of 14 carat gold! In short, a garden is no different than a living piece of artwork. And since Phaidon is in the business of artwork, this masterfully curated cookbook is like a treasured garden.

My favorite style of garden is a chaos garden – and I have found profound beauty and spontaneity in this type of disorganization that has given us the most lush, thriving space for food and flowers I have ever encountered in my over twenty years of tending to growing things. It started out as an experiment in our micro-scaled nod toward regenerative agriculture, an “outcome-based food production system that nurtures and restores soil health, protects the climate and water resources and biodiversity…” (borrowed from It’s where innovation meets tradition. Bottom line, we created an abundance of bee attracting plants and now we are enjoying the most colorful, enchanting, hardy garden full of spectacularly grown vegetables, lettuces, fruits, flowers and culinary/medicinal herbs.

Whatever the garden style, an intentional space for growing nourishing and delicious food is what distinguishes these world-renowned chefs featured in The Garden Chef.

As my fingertips eagerly leafed through the heavy, matte pages, I was transported to on-site kitchen, garden and greenhouses in Strandvegur, Iceland; Alba, Italy; Cote d’Azur, France; Victoria, Australia; Lima, Peru; and Kyushu, Japan.

The photographs generously capture Michelin level plates and bowls artfully decorated with leaves, seeds, flowers, herbs, fish and meat in unexpected bursts of color, sprinkled with fantastical whimsy like bright green fennel and pine puree drizzled over a tiny clamshell alongside a tiny lilac-colored edible flower that could be a hand painted lady’s brooch. Art Nouveau! This is what I imagine a dish would look like if Lalique was a chef. In this case, I was looking at the gardens and inspired food of Matthew and Iain Pennington of The Ethicurean in Somerset, UK.

I was delighted to find on page 173 the highlighted work of Chef Magnus Nilsson, founder of Fäviken Magasinet in Järpen, Sweden. While no longer operating, I was fortunate to enjoy an unforgettable evening at Fäviken on June 21, 2016. It was like taking a journey echoed in the Odyssey to get to this hideaway property where all things on the menu were foraged, hunted, fished and gardened in the surrounding area. An evening at Fäviken was so carefully orchestrated that every detail had deeply felt wholehearted intention – from the guided movement from one incredible space to the next, to the timing and precision of food and drink presentation, to seeding relationships by seating small parties like dinner party guests in small nooks in an intimate hive which transcended the experience beyond the evening. Fäviken introduced me to a few lifelong friendships. I am still in touch with three separate couples I had met that evening from New York, Amsterdam and Bordeaux. We were all about the same age and had much in common. I have had the pleasure of dining at some extraordinary restaurants – but my experience at Fäviken is incomparable, as Nilsson’s set menu evokes experiences of his home territory. You get a clear sense of his world, his family, his traditions by visceral engagement with each room and each dish you encounter.

The cookbook beautifully presents all that is Fäviken in six pages, with swirling gray-blue clouded skies over green-brown rolling landscapes with puffs of pine green trees and shrubs in front of glassy lilac water. The traditional Nordic red buildings with shimmering white rooftops are classic fixtures to the Fäviken compound and it looks as dreamy as the lamb sweetbreads and chard swimming in a shallow bowl of buttery chard juice on page 177.

I was also inspired by Chef Simon Rogan’s farm and food in the book’s spread of his work at L’Enclume in Cumbria, UK. Rogan is “renowned for his innovative style and passion for ‘forgotten’ vegetables, fruits, herbs, and foraged wild foods. It’s an approach that has helped him gain two Michelin stars for L’Enclume … After initially working with a local grower to produce the unusual varieties he wanted for his menu, in 2011 Rogan set up ‘Our Farm,’ his own dedicated smallholding that now produces more than 200 different types of edible plant. The farm also has a crucial part to play in utilizing waste, making the whole operation as sustainable as possible” (p. 197).

The pages dedicated to his work show lovely lettuces, nasturtiums and two particular prepared dishes that are so exquisitely plated they look like they should be on display at the MOMA. His “Turnips with Ham Fat Cream and Salted Plums” is a simple, lovely designed, small portioned dish that would be the perfect start to a long-enjoyed meal. If his “Aynesome Offerings” is next on the menu, I could just hit pause right there and stay there all night. A stunning presentation of crisp ham threads, beets, Mood Red gem lettuces, young scallions, young “Cherry Belle” radishes, fava bean tips, brassica flowers, micro pea pods, bronze fennel fronds, red orache tips, chervil tops with flowers, allium flowers, flowers from thyme sprigs, micro fava beans, and native Cumbrian lobster tail served with dots of canola emulsion. This is one of the most beautiful nests of edible nature I have ever seen.

As I have evolved as a nutritionist, a gardener, and now budding herbalist – I have gone beyond admiring pretty things like nasturtiums, zucchini blossoms, micro greens, and broccolini flowers, and have implemented them into my regular garden to table cooking. I have gone beyond enjoying the bee-dazzling sunflowers, dandelion, hawthorn, motherwort, yarrow and calendula that have been quietly stretching to the sky each season in overgrowth, and now sing to them, asking them for permission to harvest their medicine, using the edible flowers in salads and teas, using various plant material for medicine making. And I understand the relationship between plants as both food and medicine. I believe the best chefs understand this, as well.

I have enjoyed playing around with this cookbook. I don’t follow recipes. Instead, I get an inspiration and grow from there. I look to see what’s in my pantry, in my fridge, in my freezer, and in my garden. I will emulate some of these beautiful dishes and then make them my own. There’s no right or wrong way around this. You just feed your own creativity, find your own inventiveness and play! Play like your child self in your grandmother’s garden and kitchen. Find the joy. And when you plate the results and place them on the table, that joy, that inspiration – it’s infectious! It sparks memories and stokes a lifelong love for simple food, simple cooking with great intention and attention to detail that is not precious and pretentious, but rooted in love, joy and ancestral wisdom.

The Garden Chef does what any great piece of artwork should do – inspires and, for a moment, gives us something to feel into, to contemplate, to relate to, to unpack. This is food appreciation at its finest. And it doesn’t have to be limited to the tenets of fine dining only. Anyone can take this cookbook and reimagine food and nourishment. Because, like Growing Gardens proselytizes, anyone can grow a garden. Let that be an inspiration for anyone and everyone to grow, source and prepare food that is transformational. I would love to see this book distributed to communities that are embracing gardening and community gardens, and to show home cooks different ways to play with what’s in season and to perhaps excavate old family recipes and meditate on what it means to nourish yourself, your family. You don’t have to make a masterpiece when you prepare food, but you can throw in edible flowers to spark some joy. Yeah, your kids might not eat them, but, if they are helping out in the garden, they just might.

I love that a book like The Garden Chef has the potential to awaken creativity and deepen that longing for beautiful, intentional, nourishing food that comes to you in the right season, gives you the vitamins and minerals you need in that given season, gives you a snapshot of time and place with memories in your back yard, or side yard, or rooftop space. We all have to eat. Growing a garden empowers you to have some control over what you will eat. It allows for creativity to honor the harvest and not let anything go to waste. It can change you palate and connect you to places far away.

Let this book be a blueprint. And then start building your own dishes from your heart.