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Ground floor vegetables: when the vegetable garden is inside the hotel

Until a few years ago, a few niche producers could satisfy the demand for organic, farm-to-table and ethically produced food. This trend, initially begun with fruits and vegetables, today is growing exponentially in the western hemisphere. Intercepted at the beginning by the food industry, it has enjoyed the multiplication of biological lines and products in which removing an element such as gluten, sugar, lactose, palm oil, helps to drive its success, especially if combined with the addition of a superfood, such as chia seeds or turmeric.

According to a 2017 analysis by the Boston Consulting Group, exhibited during the Cibus Connect trade fair in Parma, the market for sustainable gastronomy is growing. In Italy alone, it is growing by 8-9% a year, totalling a value of over 1 billion Euros. In the United States, on the other hand, it is exceeding 15 billion, disproving the assumption that Americans only eat junk food.

Lamberto Biscarini, senior partner and managing director for BCG Italy, Greece and Turkey, comments:

It's not true that people in the USA only crave hamburgers: at least 70% of American consumers have tried one or more products of responsible consumption, and there is growing interest, even in Italy.

Such attention to product quality places a strong focus also to food origin: therefore, the demand for local produce is increasing. Such a trend is revolutionising the whole food industry and its stakeholders, from packaging by food companies to involve both ordinary people and hotels.

Hotel farming

Many hotels are creating special spaces within their structures, where it is possible to grow vegetables and raw kitchen ingredients. Some will even prepare small greenhouses or real gardens where they grow fruit and vegetables, and even hives in which to raise honeybees or places to distil alcohol. Urban hotels, on the other hand, can use nothing but their roofs, with Michelin starred chefs acting as farmers.

The first year I watered the roof with a garden hose by myself. I spent every day at least an hour and a half there. Brian Wieler, chef at the Westin Grand Central in New York

It was 2012 and Westin decided to set up a real organic garden on top the 41st floor of its skyscraper overlooking Manhattan: over 400 square metres in size and destined to become so popular that it has become a tourist destination for customers of the restaurant. The following year, the hotel installed an advanced irrigation system with a timer to ensure that all plants got the right amount of water at the right time and the chef could devote himself to his primary job.

The plants grown there include rocket, mesclun lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, yellow pumpkins, peppers and zucchini, as well as basil, mint, thyme, oregano and coriander, which are used in the preparation of the dishes of THE LCL: Bar & Kitchen, the restaurant in Westin, enjoying considerable success among its guests.

In addition to irrigation, Wieler used the skills of one of the carpenters of the hotel's engineering department to build the white cedar cubicles on which to install the greenhouses (strictly made of untreated wood so that food would not be exposed to any chemical substance, though resistant to putrefaction and insect infestation). The chef then employed the hotel’s bricklayers to create columns to protect the integrity of the roof, covered with small rocks to facilitate the drainage of liquids and to better distribute the weight of the cedar beds.

However, it took Wieler years to learn how to take advantage of the shade of the surrounding buildings to protect the delicate lettuce from the summer heat, or to learn how to handle the size of the leaves of pumpkins and zucchini. His efforts have paid off, given that the amount of cultivation has now tripled and the interest of customers is in no way diminishing.

Also in New York, nestled among the art galleries and high fashion shops of Soho and much smaller in size, there is the vegetable garden of the Crosby Street Hotel, on the twelfth floor of the building. Featuring a fresh, cosmopolitan atmosphere, it produces crispy radishes for the hotel's breakfasts, a few vegetables to complement hamburgers and edible violets to accompany afternoon tea. It also has a fence that houses 4 Araucana chickens, which supply the kitchen with small, scenic blue eggs.
The Brown Palace Hotel&spa in Denver, Colorado, on the other hand, has been using a beehive on the roof to produce honey since 2010. This product is used not only during the afternoon teas and as an ingredient to a craft beer offered in the hotel's Ship's Tavern (labelled as the Brown Palace Ale or also the Brown Palace Honey-Infused Bourbon), but also to create a line of beauty products - the Rooftop Honey Amenity - used in the hotel spa’s products, like face soaps, shampoos, bath gels, face and body lotions. These same products are included in each room and are intended to raise awareness among guests to the sharp decrease in the number of bees due to the indiscriminate increase in pesticides and the destruction of their habitat.
Daven Wardynski, executive chef at the Omni Hotel in Chicago, moved to the Omni Amelia Island resort in Florida in 2012 (an island just off the northeastern coast of Florida). There, he had the opportunity to create a real farm, as part of the resort's "Sprouting Project", for which he decided to use a special irrigation system. Sparing no expense, Wardynski decided to opt for two hydroponic cultivation systems.
This system involves the use of live fish that can provide excellent natural nutrients to the spices and vegetables plants. Starting from an old resort greenhouse in need of renovation, Daven ended up acting as an engineer and an architect, literally redesigning the space:

We had to replace the sheet and lay the concrete inside the greenhouse to insulate the ground. There was actually no technician to manage the work; I was there with a digger to drill holes for the farmyards of our hens or to level the ground to put in the greenhouse hives. It was a gradual process of evolution.

A process that led to a state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse, with a large organic garden, a collection of 16 hives, as well as a "barrel room" with 36 20-litre barrels filled with everything from cocktails to homemade spicy sauces, to vinegar made from wine grounds. This greenhouse has become an invaluable asset of a resort that already benefits from an unparalleled view of the Atlantic Ocean for each of its 404 rooms, Florida's largest swimming pool (over 3000 square meters), including a children's play area and two hot tubs, golf courses and over-equipped spas - all spread over more than 1350 acres of land.
At the same time, irrigation has been an issue initially underestimated by Executive Chef Bernard Ibarra of the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. When the resort's Catalina View Gardens were set up, Ibarra thought that leaving the pipes of a water tank on the hill open for an hour a day would be enough to properly irrigate the land. He changed his mind after he got stuck in the kitchen for 6 hours reducing its beautiful gardens to a swamp. The chef tells us:

Now we have a better irrigation system that we still manage manually, but which, thanks to the numerous pipes and hoses along the pipes, is really much easier to control.

Even for these gardens, the evolution has been gradual, but now Ibarra is thrilled to have among the ingredients of its menu citrus fruits, vegetables and herbs grown within the hotel, as well as to serve the fish of small local anglers.

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