If you hear "pumpkin spice" and think "harvest," chances are you've been growing some veggies for at least a season or two. If you're looking to take your harvest to the next level, you're in the right place. We talked to Chef Mel Mecinas of Talavera at Scottsdale's Four Seasons about how to improve your starter garden and harvest restaurant quality produce, like he does.
Chef Mel and his team recently helped Maya of Maya's Farm weed and maintain her garden. The chef wanted his team to get connected to the earth, and understand what it takes to grow the quality vegetables they serve to guests. He meets up regularly there with other chefs and cooks who want to learn more about how the operation works.
"It is a chance for them to continue learning about different aspects of the culinary industry," says Mecinas.
When farmers talk about their produce, they are passionate. According to Mecinas, "it is the same passion I have for a dish that I create." And the chef is intimately acquainted with farm work -- his father was a farmer and this early experience with the farming community helped shape his appreciation for cooking close to the source with fresh ingredients.
Here are Chef Mel's tips to taking your garden to the next level:
"Good soil is key to producing great quality produce." " It would be a good idea to get your soil directly from a local farmer, if possible. It takes time to 'build' the soil to the right balance for great results." Growers take note- this might be the most expensive part of getting superb produce.
"Make sure to mind the sun, and when the plants need shade." Chef Mel has a great point here, some fall veggies need a little shade-- consider creating a movable shade. This can be as easy as stretching some shade cloth over a wooden frame and leaning it over the right part of a planter or raised bed garden.
"Water early in the morning, before it gets too hot." Here in Arizona even in the winter the days are warm so water in the evening for best results. This also helps avoid water spots and damage on leafy greens-making them all the more presentable and restaurant worthy.
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"Best to harvest early in the morning." Fresh is usually best! Plus spending time in the garden in the morning helps identify any watering problems (if you water overnight) and you can work before it gets warm.
"Harvest only what you need at one time, and use as soon as possible." Do not be tempted to pick items too early, before they are ripe. Tomatoes, for example, taste best when they ripen on the vine. If you're finding that birds or ants are getting to your produce before you do, make sure to invest in netting, slings or organic pest treatments.
Where else can you find Chef Mel in the field? He's scheduling a trip to Queen Creek Olive Mill as well- his team will learn more about olive oil pressing process as his restaurant uses drums and drums of olive oil from the Mill. After that it's visits to his other farm vendors, Sunizona Farms, Stansfield Arizona Cedar River and Black Mesa Ranch.