Inspired by his father’s passion for gardening, Chef Dean Thomas of the New England Culinary Institute offers students hands-on experience in his herb garden. Sowing and harvesting his own herbs is part of the pride Thomas puts onto each plate.
Editor’s note: this is the first in a series on chefs’ herb gardens.
• Lemon-Chive Vinaigrette
Two green thumbs and a passion for food are essential ingredients in Dean Thomas’s garden. “My father gardened, and he inspired me to keep my fingers in the ground,” says the executive sous-chef at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Essex, Vermont.
Thomas, who has been a chef for twenty-three years, previously cooked—and grew his own herbs—at Westin Resorts in Tucson, Arizona, and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and at Caneel Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands. At NECI, an accredited cooking school, he oversees the food and beverage operations of the on-campus Inn at Essex and offers 100 student chefs per year firsthand experience in growing fresh herbs.
When Thomas moved to Vermont with his wife, Nicole, and their three children four years ago, he discovered that NECI’s kitchen garden was a small plot of poor soil on the shady side of a building. He staked out a vegetable and herb garden in an open field about 100 yards from the kitchen door. “We had to till the soil and remove all the high field grass and rocks,” Thomas recalls. He added compost made from kitchen scraps and buried fish heads to improve the fertility of the site’s clay soil.
Chiles and sweet and ‘Dark Opal’ basils line the stone path that winds through the herb garden from its trellised entrance to a stone wall at the opposite end. Thyme and rosemary grow toward the end of the path, and chives are a mass of mauve flowers in early June. Colorful nasturtiums keep company with tarragon, sage, thyme, cilantro, parsley, oregano, and chervil, while a few squash plants add a vertical element against the walls of Butler’s Restaurant.
The short growing season—June to late September—hasn’t stopped Thomas from growing what he wants in his kitchen garden. His only requirement is that the herbs be easily identifiable by the students who cultivate and pick them. “We don’t want a mistake ending up on the night’s menu,” he says.
Chives get high marks for their versatility and early appearance in the garden, but Thomas also loves basil, “especially in midsummer when tomatoes are coming into season.”
Students from NECI’s Product ID class weed and harvest the crops. “The class is designed to teach them to buy, receive, and store items,” Thomas explains. “By working in the herb garden, they till the earth, plant a seed, watch it grow, bend over and pick it. They learn that’s what basil looks like.”
Sounding like a proud gardener tending his seedlings until they reach maturity, Thomas says, “I watch over the students from matriculation to graduation. Some students really get into the herb garden. Some have always lived in a big city and may have never seen a real garden before. I think I’m teaching them to respect the food you cook with. Who knows, maybe it will even inspire some of them to plant their own herb gardens when they become chefs.”
As for his own feelings about gardening, Thomas says, “It’s part of being a chef, your food ethics, what makes you proud. It’s like having a part of yourself in what you serve. I think it’s part of cooking, the pride you put on the plate.”
Though the inn’s resident horticulturist, Stephanie Solt, keeps an eye on the herb and vegetable gardens, Thomas gets out to the gardens as often as he can. “That’s my escape, the way I get away,” he says.
Come winter, Thomas lets his herb garden go (“I don’t even trim back the sage bushes”). Herbs are purchased from produce companies. “We survive,” he sighs, “but it’s not the same.”
Laura Daily is taking cooking classes, but she still eats lunch at a restaurant every day.
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