Specialty greens unite farmer, Wichita chefs

Written by Amy Palser

For the past five years, Eric Johnson has been making the farm-to-table concept a reality for Wichita chefs. Johnson of Andover grows and delivers microgreens to some of Wichita’s best local restaurants through his company, From Seed to You.

Microgreens are tiny, edible, immature greens grown from the seeds of vegetables and herbs. Chefs like them because they add both flavor and aesthetics to dishes, but they are also more nutritionally dense than their mature counterparts. A USDA study found that microgreens have about five times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plants.

Johnson, who has always loved seeds, soil and growing food, developed a passion for microgreens by accident. Ten years ago he and wife Erica moved to a home with five acres, so Johnson immediately bought 50 chickens and a hoop house (an unheated greenhouse) to grow tomatoes. He began selling his tomatoes to local restaurants, thereby getting his foot in the door of the food world.

It was while sprouting seeds for his chickens that Johnson discovered microgreens. “I started sprouting basil and I tasted it in the baby stage and thought, ‘This is awesome!’ ” The tiny basil packed a punch, so he tried the same thing with radishes; they were outstanding.

YouTube was a new resource at the time and educational videos were few and far between, but Johnson found a farmer in Ithaca, NY, who posted a 10-minute video about growing microgreens. That’s all the encouragement Johnson needed. He took his newly grown microgreens around to the chefs he knew, and a business was born.

“I had awesome chefs who would experiment with what I brought them, and then it got serious,” he said. “Next thing you know, I’ve got 12 restaurants, and delivery day is my absolute favorite day of my week.”

Five years later, it’s still those conversations with local chefs on delivery day that keep Johnson going. He loves to tap their brains, find out what kinds of dishes they’re cooking and come up with new microgreen varieties for them to try. He delivers his greens “live,” meaning they are still in the soil in their containers, so chefs harvest as they need them.

“I used to get microgreens in Denver and they were already cut and washed and they would rot pretty quickly,” said Josh Rathbun, executive chef at Siena Tuscan Steakhouse in the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Wichita. “His stay nice in the cooler for like a week to two weeks.”

Rathbun said he uses microgreens for garnishes, using one or two delicate leaves at a time; other times he cuts a bunch of greens to go on top of or mix into a dish.

“He’s really cool. We have great conversations. We’ll talk for a half hour about what he’s working on,” Rathbun said. “He really fits my needs with size, diversity, seasonality. It just adds a whole level of refinement for me as a chef. The greens have so much flavor and they’re visually appealing, too. That really goes a long way.”

Johnson said the most popular microgreen he grows is pea shoots, of which he has many different varieties. He also grows immature radishes, mustards, basil, arugula, spinach, carrots, fava shoots, sunflowers, garlic chives, fennel, daikon and sorrel. The plants are grown year-round in a controlled environment, which amounts to a separate room in a separate building on Johnson’s property.

“It is great,” Johnson said. “I get to go in the back door of restaurants and see what the chefs are doing. In the back of my brain all the time I’m thinking, what would they use that for? Maybe they’re putting sorrel on salmon or the garlic chives over a scallop. What I love doing is I’ll mix it up. I like to have different stuff at different restaurants so people aren’t seeing the same things.”

Kevin Derks, chef at Newport Grill in Bradley Fair, said the quality and variety of Johnson’s microgreens are outstanding.

“They’re very hard to come by in other cities. In other parts of the country it takes a week to get them. But he seeds it in these nice little trays and you just cut them off when you need them. You’re not worrying about them dying. And he’ll grow a specific thing just for you.”

At Chester’s Chophouse at The Waterfront, executive chef/owner Bobby Lane has been a loyal customer of Johnson’s from the beginning. “Anything we couldn’t find in the local market, he started growing them for us,” Lane said. “He has a real passion, and we as chefs feed off anyone who has a passion.”

The microgreen flavors are intense, he said, and they provide nice eye appeal. “They’re like shamrock green and so vibrant on plates. It really pops the food.”

Johnson said the collaboration between farmer and chef is an exciting process that ultimately leads to delicious, nutritious, enjoyable food experiences for customers.

“It’s a blast. It’s so much fun.”

Restaurants using From Seed to You microgreens

Chester’s Chophouse
Newport Grill
Siena Tuscan Steakhouse
Hyatt Regency
George’s French Bistro
Bella Vita Bistro
6S Steakhouse
Lola’s Bistro
Elderslie Farm
YaYa’s Eurobistro
86 Cold Press
Green Acres, retail sales at east and west locations

Pick it Yourself!

Even if you’re not a gardener, you can still eat like one in Wichita. Fresh produce abounds in and around the city each summer, whether at one of the local farmers’ markets, or at one of the many farms that sell their goods to visitors. If you really want the farm-to-table experience, try picking your own!

Meadowlark Farm, Rose Hill
A crop of peaches, though sparse because of the spring freeze, will be available through August at this farm southeast of Wichita. Apple picking started in mid-July and extends into autumn. For those who aren’t into fruit picking, you can visit Meadowlark’s hard cider taproom. Check Meadowlark Farm’s Facebook page for summer hours and daily updates of which fruits are ready to pick.

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