BY CAROLYN O’NEIL
Accessorizing for a sunny afternoon in a vegetable garden takes a stylish turn when you begin by harvesting heirloom tomatoes, basil and rosemary on the back lawn of the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation. My Chanel sunglasses fit right in as I joined a group of guests plucking produce to prepare our lunch in a Garden to Grill cooking class.
Located on Lake Oconee a little more than an hour from Atlanta, the resort that boasts championship golf courses and a luxury spa has added a chef’s garden.
Jaco Smith, chef at the property’s Georgia’s Bistro, and executive chef Scott Gambone are dedicated to putting Southern-grown products on the menus. They worked with local farmer Sid Cox of Deerwood Farms in nearby Sparta to carve out a section of the lawn in front of the terrace to create an herb and vegetable garden.
In less than eight weeks the little plot is bursting with tomatoes, mint, rosemary, three kinds of basil and lots of other herbs.
“We don’t even have to order these herbs from our suppliers anymore,” Smith said. “We just pick our own for use in the kitchen.”
It used to be that fancy hotels would feature only flowers in their landscape, but the timeless ornamental appeal of herb gardens combined with popular enthusiasm for the White House vegetable garden brings a fresh acceptance to the beauty of edible landscapes.
Smith says the chef’s garden attracts a lot of attention. “When guests see me tending the garden, they have so many questions about the best way to grow herbs and ask how the tomatoes are doing.”
Please do pick the basil
While the garden, surrounded by a white picket fence, is for chefs’ use only, it is open to those who join Smith’s Saturday cooking classes.
And in total Ritzy style, each guest cook gets his or her own personalized chef’s jacket, an apron and a chef’s hat, of course.
Expect about three hours of “farming,” food and fun.
The three-course luncheon began in the garden. Smith directed us to pick what we needed from the garden, and we worked together to assemble it all in an outdoor kitchen and on the grill. The best part was when other guests walked by and asked, “What’s going on here?” “Why are you all wearing a chef hat?”
I’ll tell you why. These recipes are pretty serious.
Our first course was a strawberry, herb and summer green salad with Sweet Grass Dairy goat cheese and a kiwi raspberry dressing.
Guest chefs hit the grill for the second course of herb-grilled scallops and shrimp served with the yellow heirloom tomatoes I picked and pesto made with basil from the garden.
Rosemary growing a few feet from the grill figured in the third course: rosemary-grilled lamb chops served with a warm fingerling potato salad, pickled shallots and raisins.
The Garden to Grill menu morphs with the seasons, and Smith gave us the scoop on what’s next.
“We are expanding the garden to include fall crops, including pumpkins, squash and winter greens.”
This healthy addition to menu and mind-set goes a long way to supporting efforts to elevate locally grown produce to gourmet status on even the most elegant menus.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolyn oneil.com.