On his one free day each week, Niven Patel, the chef de cuisine at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, trades his whites for work boots. His two-acre plot in Homestead at the edge of the Redland grows Tuscan kale, chard, San Marzano tomatoes, and seasoning peppers, "which taste like a habanero without any of the heat," he says.
Though many cooks around Miami sing the praises of Homestead farms, you don't hear about as many who live there and brave the twice-daily, hour-plus commute to and from the city's center. But Patel's attachment to the area began early in his career when he shuttled to and from a job in Islamorada. Later, while working in a Cayman Islands restaurant that had its own farm, he met Michael Schwartz, who lured him back to Miami in 2013 to run his eponymous Design District restaurant.
After a 1 a.m. cruise by the house that fellow cooks have since dubbed "Rancho Patel," he knew he had to have it. He and the head chefs from Schwartz's other restaurants gathered there at the crack of dawn last week to pull vegetables for yesterday's Ark of Taste dinner benefiting Slow Food Miami.
"We pulled pepperoncini and shishito [peppers], things you use every day but you forget where they come from," he says. Even after grabbing enough carrots, greens, and beets to feed nearly 200 people, Patel says, he had pulled only half of his crop.
It all began about a year ago when he took $12,000 out of pocket to build fourteen 32-foot-long planter beds. He had five dump trucks full of soil carted in from a nearby horse farm. He ran irrigation lines and consulted constantly with nearby farmers and a library of literature.
"I want to grow stuff other farmers aren't growing," he says. "Our farmers in the last five to ten years have become really good at certain things, but that's their livelihood, so they don't want to take a risk."
That could mean black-eyed peas and Romano beans -- a summertime Italian varietal that's sweeter than snap peas.
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All of that could soon end up on special at Michael's Genuine. Farmer-gurus estimate his annual crop could be worth $200,000 a year, making it possible that Patel's vegetables could be featured for days at a time as opposed to one-off events where they've mostly appeared lately.
"It's just a matter of time," he says. "We're not professionals, but we'll get there."