By Sara Gasbarra
Acclaimed Chicago pastry chef Leigh Omilinsky and I have been close friends for many years, our work and lives intersecting via Chicago’s restaurant industry where Leigh crafts beautiful (and delicious!) Italian-inspired pastries and desserts for Nico Osteria, and I build and tend culinary gardens for chefs and other hospitality clients with my full-service garden design business.
Up until this spring, there had been many, many conversations between the two of us about how we could combine efforts and talents to collaborate on a project one day. As often happens, our busy schedules got in the way of our grand plans and we never saw this idea take root. That is, up until this spring….
My company Verdura has been curating garden programs for seven years in Chicago, and most recently I’ve expanded my work into Nashville. I’ve been a longtime fan of Gardener’s Supply’s self-watering planters (I have Terrazza Troughs, raised beds and square boxes installed on lots and lots of rooftops in Chicago!) and some of my favorite garden tools that I’ve kept in rotation for years can still be found in the Gardener’s catalog.
I was thrilled when Gardener’s Supply approached me in the spring to test-run some product and I knew immediately that this plan we had for creating a garden for Leigh would be the perfect opportunity to finally the get ball rolling! As most of my gardens are site-specific to restaurants, our plans for this one would be slightly different. Leigh wanted her garden to be at her home. Sure, everything we’d be cultivating would supplement her pastry program, but she wanted the added benefit of enjoying the beauty of the garden in her backyard and not tucked away on a raw roof space above the restaurant.
I personally was excited about the idea for this project as it was finally a way to combine a residential garden with a restaurant kitchen garden, and given that Leigh lives in the historic Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square, we’d be creating and building a garden in a very typical (and often challenging!) urban backyard setting.
We selected Gardener’s Standing Gardens specially as they are elevated; narrow for the tight, compact space on Leigh’s back deck; and also self-watering — we want Leigh to focus on making her award-winning desserts and not spending hours each day with a garden hose in hand! We also loved the Standing Gardens as we felt they were still large enough to really maximize growing potential and yield and would keep her back deck looking nice and tidy — the elevation helps considerably with that! It’s nice to see everything off the ground and at waist-level, especially when these gardens get wild and crazy in August.
Installation was a breeze! A drill is really all you need. (Well, a drill and maybe a glass of rosé! Isn’t everything better and easier with a glass of rosé? We think so!) When we were in the planning stages with Gardener’s incredible team, it was suggested we stain the wood with their eco-friendy, whey-based stain, which we think makes the planters look extra sharp and sophisticated and coordinates quite well with the decking!
We were admittedly a bit nervous about the staining process. Would it be messy? Would it take hours? But it took one short hour for four standing planters! Actually, the entire building and installation of the boxes took another couple hours. This was the quickest, most streamlined installation I’ve ever completed. The end result transformed Leigh’s back deck into a lush, defined, and organized green space. (Her neighbors are quite envious!)
Each of our four standing planters was planted with 4 to 5 kinds of herbs and edible flowers for Nico’s pastry program, including rosemary, bachelor buttons, citrus gem marigold, oxalis, bay laurel, lemon verbena, Genovese basil, Mrs. Burns’ lemon basil, African blue basil, Red Rubin basil, Purple Ruffles basil (we’re growing a TON of basil!), lemon thyme, nasturtium, flowering verbena and begonias. (Did you know begonia flowers are edible? They are the single flower I grow for every restaurant client I work with as they are tart, citrusy, a bit succulent and prolific. So so delicious!)
Leigh began harvesting from the garden about two weeks after we installed in June and was immediately incorporating the vegetation into her desserts, which change seasonally. Her boyfriend Scott Stroemer (who is the bar manager at Nico’s sister restaurant, Pacific Standard Time) also picks flowers daily for his beverage program. The pair can barely keep up with the edible flower production from this garden. It’s incredible!
The real excitement from any of my restaurant gardens is when the entire process comes full circle and the vegetation, leaves, flowers, and our aromatics hit the plate. Here are a couple examples of how Leigh is incorporating her herbs and flowers into Nico’s desserts.
Boccone dolce. All the summer berries, toasted bay leaf mousse, lime-gin granita, lemon thyme, and bay leaf gelato in a sweet bite, which is why it’s called a boccone dolce. This dessert was meant to highlight the amazing berries available in Chicago during the summer months. The bay leaf has a beautiful flavor that really gets enhanced when it’s toasted. The dessert is light and refreshing and just screams summer! (The bay laurel, lemon thyme, and white begonia flowers are from our garden.)
Budino di pane. One of Leigh’s prized recipes is her croissant recipe and the budino di pane (also known as bread pudding) uses Leigh’s croissants! It is served with a plum-lemon verbena jam, olive oil honey, cardamom creme fraiche, fresh plums, and plum-lemon verbena sorbet, and it’s garnished with garden flowers, of course. Leigh loves using lemon verbena and fresh lemon verbena is so much more fragrant and beautiful than dried. But she often has a hard time sourcing it from vendors, so she was very excited to grow her own! (Did you know that lemon verbena can also withstand lots of intense summer heat? It’s my best-growing herb down in Nashville, still looking lush and green even when the temperatures hit upwards of 100 degrees!)
Stay tuned for our second post where we will share some ideas and recipes for preserving your herb harvest and incorporating herbs and flowers into a couple of late-summer cocktails!