Sacred Ground

Chef Horst Pfeifer saw horticultural promise in a parking lot adjoining an abandoned convent near his New Orleans restaurant. Now Bella Luna patrons dine on cuisine made with freshly picked herbs from his garden plot.


Content Tools

Horst Pfeifer hates to see land devoid of harvestable produce. Give him a plot, and he’ll make something—anything—grow on it. As a boy, that meant his own child-size garden on his family’s farm in the small town of Bachlingen, Germany, near Rothenburg. As a denizen of New Orleans’s Vieux Carré, the French Quarter, it means a courtyard filled with a dozen pots sprouting chives, basil, lemon balm, and more.

When Pfeifer first laid eyes on a football-field-size plot 150 yards from Bella Luna, his new French Quarter restaurant, he immediately envisioned a chef’s garden. No matter that the area was paved, weed-ridden, and owned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. (It was also adjacent to the now vacant Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.) Pfeifer knew that beneath the blacktop was land—and he wanted it.

“When I first moved into the neighborhood, I met Monsignor Alvin J. O’Reilly,” recalls Pfeifer. “I learned the convent, built in 1745, once boasted an extensive herb garden, which Ursuline nuns used to feed colonial schoolgirls and to treat French soldiers during the French Revolution. One of the original nuns, Sister Francis Xavier, was the first female pharmacist in the Western Hemisphere and grew medicinal herbs.” The convent held the first school for girls, served as the nation’s first orphanage and day nursery, and was the first retreat house for women.

Pfeifer persuaded O’Reilly to let him restore the land surrounding the convent but agreed to plant medicinal along with culinary herbs as O’Reilly wished to return the land to its condition when Sister Francis Xavier gardened there. The chef then talked Rose Buras, a local horticulturist, into lending a hand with the design. In the summer of 1994, heavy machinery removed the blacktop and scraped off 6 inches of topsoil. Fresh topsoil was delivered, and within six weeks, Pfeifer and his kitchen crew had laid out fifteen 12-by-14-foot beds and installed PVC French drains to carry away excess water. Each bed contains a different soil mixture. Those holding thyme, rosemary, and lavender have a high proportion of gravel and sand to ensure rapid drainage. Basil goes into a bed that holds richer soil with less sand.

History and culinary needs dictate the herb garden’s plantings. “We found letters and notes in the convent’s archives, so I had an idea of what the nuns originally grew,” Pfeifer says. “Then, with advice from Rose, I chose a mix of what would grow well and herbs I knew I would like.” Pfeifer admits that he added a few unfamiliar herbs. “I always thought of lemon and silver thyme as novelties, but I cooked with them and learned to use them.”

Today, Pfeifer grows more than forty herbs. Seven beds of antique tea roses (cared for by O’Reilly) bordered with evergreen trees lead to an expansive green lawn and the chef’s herb garden. A 5-foot-tall prostrate rosemary planted on top of a post (to hide an unsightly driveway) adjoins a plot of sorrel, parley, chervil, and cilantro. Chives encircle a bed of sweet and ‘Mammoth’ lettuce-leaf basil, while assorted mints hold court in a far corner in a bed of their own. Ginger, catnip, and lemongrass fringe a pond with its own rushing waterfall, and various thymes share space with tarragon, garlic chives, and lavender.

A brick path neatly bisects the garden. Five new life-size Italian marble statues of nuns once affiliated with the convent greet visitors. At the rear of the garden, a shrine to Our Lady of Prompt Succor is bounded by lemon, purple, and lime basils on one side and edible violets and lemon balm on the other. Fig, tangerine, kumquat, and key lime trees, each now between 5 and 6 feet tall, provide modest shade to the lavender and thyme. Pfeifer rotates his herbs just as his parents once rotated their crops. “The nutrients leach out so you have to give each bed a break every so often,” he says. Erosion is not a problem on the level site, and a drip irrigation system is rarely used. “In 1991, 200 inches of rain fell,” Pfeifer explains. “Sometimes it rains every day. Who needs to water?” New Orleans’s steamy summers seem to do little harm. “I may lose rosemary, dill, cilantro, or sage in the summer, but most of the herbs are hardy,” he says.

Garden as guide

Pfeifer’s love for fresh produce was nurtured from childhood. “Everything on the table we grew or raised ourselves,” he says. “I remember harvesting cabbage with my mother and hanging it in the basement or digging up carrots and storing them in barrels filled with sand.” The birth of a brother when Pfeifer was ten started him down a culinary path. “I warmed up my brother’s food, and then I started cooking some of his meals,” he says. “I guess I liked it.”

Pfeifer began formal culinary training when he was fifteen, then did stints at resorts in Italy and Austria and a restaurant in Austin, Texas. “You learn something from every chef,” he says. “A few teach you how to do something; a few, how not to do something. I really admired the formal continental style but realized there was a way to make more people happy at a more affordable price.” That way turned out to be the 200-seat Bella Luna, launched with his wife, Karen, in 1991.

The menu is eclectic, blending New Orleans, continental, and southwestern specialties. An order might include duck confit quesadilla with fresh avocado and fire-roasted poblanos; seafood bouillabaisse with shrimp, mussels, and basil pesto crostini; and herb-crusted lamb loin with gratiné potatoes and fresh mint Granny Smith apple relish.

Pfeifer is so sold on herbs that he includes an “Herb of the Quarter” in every issue of his Bella Luna newsletter, Lunar Notes. The July 1999 issue expounded the best ways to grow and cook with lavender (dark meats and desserts are good companions). For a free copy of the newsletter, write to Bella Luna Restaurant, 914 N. Peters St., New Orleans, LA 70116.

Pfeifer, accompanied by his Lhasa apso, Havana, devotes about forty-five minutes of every morning to garden maintenance and gathering herbs for the day’s cooking. He returns at 4 p.m. to snip more sprigs for garnishes. “[The restaurant] business is so crazy. Here there’s no phone, and no one bothers me. Between the garden and the animals, you forget everything,” he says.

As the herb garden has prospered, so has the convent. “When the Monsignor first opened for tours in 1992, maybe five people showed up; now we see more than a hundred every day,” says Pfeifer, who holds two fund-raisers annually to help generate income for additional garden restoration. “I love the French Quarter. Most people see New Orleans as Bourbon Street and partying round the clock. I felt like the garden was helping to bring something back and share with my neighborhood.”


• Herb-Crusted Salmon with Orange Basil Sauce 
• Tamari Lime Vinaigrette
• Thyme and Rosemary Pesto 

1. Catnip
2. Ginger
3. Lemongrass
4. Nasturtiums
5. Garden cress
6. Watercress
7. Dill
8. ‘Sylvetta’ arugula
9. Purple basil
10. Lemon basil
11. Bay laurel tree
12. Lime basil
13. Annual flowers
14. Violets
15. Lemon balm
16. Fig tree
17. Chocolate mint
18. Peppermint
19. Grapefruit mint
20. Spearmint
21. Oregano
22. Myrtle
23. Golden sage
24. Tricolor sage
25. Mexican mint marigold
26. Purple sage
27. Garden sage
28. Tangerine tree
29. Marjoram
30. Lavender
31. Key lime tree
32. Garlic chives
33. Tarragon
34. Silver thyme
35. English thyme
36. Golden lemon thyme
37. Blood orange tree
38. Lemon thyme
39. Upright rosemaries
40. Kumquat tree (tart)
41. Kumquat tree (sweet)
42. Italian squash
43. Chives
44. Ponderosa lemon tree
45. ‘Mammoth’ basil
46. Sweet basil
47. Kaffir lime tree
48. Tangerine tree
49. Cilantro
50. Chervil
51. Parsley
52. Sorrel
53. Prostrate rosemary

Colorado-based Laura Daily would welcome some Louisiana temperatures this spring so that she can try her hand at growing a wider range of culinary herbs.