Fig Street Farm at Ye Olde College Inn
3000 S. Carrollton Ave., 866-3683; www.collegeinn1933.com
A block off Carrollton Avenue, gardener Ronnie Taylor grabs an armful of cucumbers from Fig Street Farm. They're destined for the kitchen at Ye Olde College Inn, the landmark dining destination known more for its massive oyster loaves than its urban farming. The "farm," now in its second season, offers rows of tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, melons, artichokes, rosemary, basil, chives, parsley, tarragon, thyme and blackberries. Behind the raised beds and stone pathway is a chicken coop housing 13 chickens — Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons producing about 10 eggs a day. Ye Olde College Inn owner Johnny Blancher boasts the farm is the city's largest restaurant-run garden, and it soon will occupy two more lots facing Carrollton Avenue.
"We don't know what the hell we're doing," Blancher says, laughing. "But we know what we don't want to do."
The restaurant, run by the Blancher family (of the neighboring Rock 'N' Bowl) since 2003, hasn't lost its menu of New Orleans staples — it still serves the fried oyster po-boy loaves advertised on a white billboard on the restaurant's brick exterior. But Blancher and executive chef Brad McGehee want to keep the restaurant's ingredients as fresh, local and seasonal as possible. "Our focus is sustainability," Blancher says. McGehee, who joined the staff earlier this year, formerly served as chef de cuisine under executive chef Matt Murphy at M Bistro in the Ritz Carlton hotel, which also spearheaded a farm-to-table concept. Staring ingredients in specials like a "Creole caprese," bruschetta and maque choux are plucked directly from the farm across the street.
At the farm, McGee follows Taylor and Blancher, checking a row of tomatoes battling the intense June heat. "These are more tolerant to the heat," says Taylor, pointing to a row of Solar Fire tomatoes. "They last longer."
McGee plans daily and weekly specials and appetizers around what's available. He already picked cherry tomatoes for the day's special, a Gulf shrimp pesto flatbread made with the farm's basil and tomatoes. A row of sugarcane lining the farm's back fence made it into a recent chicken dish. The restaurant's first "farm" along the restaurant's parking lot still produces rows of tomatoes, and rosemary and mint are used in cocktails or as garnishes. "That's where we started," Blancher says of the small garden.
Fig Street Farm started producing last year, and next up are two plots facing Carrollton Avenue next to the restaurant. Blancher and Taylor already have mowed down the weeds taking over the plots and tilled neat rows, full of raw organic material and fertilizer. (The Inn also is collaborating with Tulane University on mirliton plantings in hopes of producing "more than we know what to do with," Blancher says.)
In the Carrollton plots, Blancher says they'll likely begin with "experimental" plantings as well as lettuce and other leafy greens. "What we can grow so we're not buying for a whole season at a time," he says. The lots were previously overgrown with weeds and home to pests that later took over Fig Street Farm. With the weeds removed, the farm uses fewer pesticides, Blancher says. "We're kicking butt this year," he says.
But the kitchen isn't totally self-sufficient. The Inn supplements its garden's offerings with produce, seafood and other restaurant staples from other local purveyors. "We like going to the farmers market, we like to support the local guys," McGehee says. "There's Crescent City Farmers Market — I go every Tuesday, usually Thursday and Saturday as well, just to get some different stuff. Sandy Sharp, from Covey Rise farms, has lots of things out there. I got a text message Friday night from him that said, 'You want to trade some vegetables for a po-boy?'"
The chickens were the farm's earliest addition. Blancher says a hawk in the Carrollton area has forced the chickens into a coop — a neighborhood dog also tormented the hens. Blancher picks up the roost's "queen," Henny, a Buff Orpington, a golden red hen. "This is my little girl right here," he says. "She got chewed up. This was the first one we had. We raised her at the house. We kept her isolated, treating her every day. She had multiple puncture wounds. And now she's making eggs again."