Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series on chefs and their herb gardens.
The tracks were deep and unmis- takable: a large creature was prowling the San Diego Wild Animal Park’s herb garden. This animal was particularly elusive, moving easily and quickly through the garden, snatching only the tenderest growth. Experienced trackers soon were on the trail, and about 100 yards from the garden they cornered their prey in the park’s kitchen. “They recognized my clog prints,” laughs chef Pete Peterson. “First they told me to keep out of the garden. Then they taught me how and when to pick the herbs.”
The park’s 4,000-square-foot herb garden is not merely tempting but downright awe-inspiring, even to the most blasé of cooks, and Peterson is anything but blasé about his job as executive chef for a most unusual establishment. Set 30 miles north of its downtown sister facility, the San Diego Zoo, the 2,200-acre San Diego Wild Animal Park showcases more than 3,200 Asian and African animals that roam in expanses designed to resemble their native habitats. Crashes of rhinos, a troop of lowland gorillas, and herds of zebras and giraffes populate the dense forests, flourishing wetlands, sprawling savannas, and open plains.
The Wild Animal Park is also a botanical garden that boasts more than 3,500 species of exotic plants–1.5 million specimens. Theme gardens include Baja cacti and succulents, bonsai, conifer, epiphyllum, fuchsia, herb, native plant, protea, waterwise and Australian rain forest.
Peterson supervises a staff of 150, who cater nine to eighteen weekly meals for between 12 and 2,500 guests, everything from executive breakfasts to formal charity banquets. Though Peterson’s training is in French and European cuisine, five years in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand acquainted him with Asian cooking techniques. Since he joined the park staff in 1995, his culinary repertoire has acquired an African influence as well.
“The chef who made me who I am today [Chef Riener Longbiegn] wouldn’t allow dried herbs in his kitchen. I guess I’ve carried that philosophy with me since,” Peterson explains. “I take an herb garden everywhere I go, even if it’s just pots of plants in the kitchen.” No wonder Peterson felt like a kid in a candy store when he discovered the park’s huge herb garden.
With its more than 400 varieties of herbs, that garden is a palette of quiet greens and soft grays, royal purples and golds, bright blues and reds. The herbs include lemon verbena, lemon balm, chamomile, anise hyssop, thyme, sage, sweet marjoram, oregano, chives, rosemary, angelica, basil, sweet bay, chile peppers, parsley, garlic, lovage, geraniums, spearmint, peppermint, ‘Orange Bergamot’ mint, vervain, roses, sweet violets, and bronze fennel. Among the collection’s more unusual herbs are Mexican lemon verbena (Lippia oaxaca), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) with its bright red blossoms, and dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus), whose rounded, aromatic leaves make a tasty tea. When the garden’s concrete pathway was poured, horticulture staff members imprinted it with herb plant leaves and simulated deer tracks. A thatched palapa (a steel structure that provides shade) and a picnic table at the east end offer views of the African elephant habitat.
Volunteers handle the planting and tilling of the large herb garden, but Peterson pays daily visits. “I drive my golf cart up one side and down the other to see what’s going on. There’s so much stress in a kitchen environment that my herb gardens have always been like therapy,” he says. “It’s great to get away and talk with the volunteers about what’s being planted or what’s growing. And I admit when I go out and see something fresh and new growing, it often inspires me to come up with a new recipe.”
Although Peterson has been able to utilize the bounty of the formal herb garden for the restaurant, he has also developed a second, smaller one immediately adjacent to his kitchen in the park’s Nairobi Village. “This one is mine to do with as I please,” he explains. “I spent over one year in planning, identifying the site, and figuring out what will grow well, then planted it this past summer.” Positioned next to Mombasa Pavilion, a covered, open-air dining area where smaller catered affairs are held, the garden overlooks Mombasa Lagoon, home to shoebilled storks, crowned cranes, and teal, plus many other waterbirds, large and small.
Taking cuttings and transplants from the larger herb garden and the park’s on-site nursery, Peterson has planted his 172-square-foot, lobster-claw-shaped bed with his most commonly used kitchen herbs: chives, green and ‘Dark Opal’ basils, marjoram, English and lemon thymes, dill, nasturtium, oregano, and dianthuses (for garnishes). Long, tapering tree aloes tie in with the African theme and screen the organic garden from the dining area. The soil is a mixture of eight-year-old compost (from the compost area located at the park), which provides good drainage; a thin mulch of wood chips helps retain soil moisture. A drip system is supplemented by manual watering.
Other than an occasional frost, Southern California growing conditions are ideal. Still, Peterson struggles with chervil (“it’s so delicate”) and is in a constant war with fauna–not lions and rhinos but mule deer and rabbits, which seek out his kitchen garden for its tasty herbs. “It always amazes me that amid all these wild animals, the deer and rabbits manage to come on to the grounds and eat up the herbs,” he says. Peterson has planted a perimeter hedge of 6-inch-thick, 16-inch-tall rosemary to “discourage the bunnies.”
Fresh herbs appear on every Peterson menu. “Mint is a big component in African dishes, as are bay leaves, peppercorns, and rosemary,” he says. As for garlic chive, “it’s a great garnish, and it adds zing to any dish.” Specialties include chervil and leek soup with chive puree, raspberry-and-tarragon-vinegar-marinated turkey breast salad, and squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese and herb pesto. Garnishes of herb purees “surprise the diner with different flavor combinations”: dill and tarragon puree with tomato and crab bisque, for example, or strawberry and basil puree with lacquered ahi (yellowfin tuna).
Peterson loves to experiment with offbeat combinations such as black peppers, vinegar, oil, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves or a pesto made with tomatoes, basil, orange zest, fresh black pepper, and pine nuts. “Herbs afford you options,” he says.
Peterson also infuses herbs in oils, vinegars, and salad dressings, as well as hanging bunches to dry for use as bouquets.
He is forever stretching boundaries. For a confetti garnish for desserts, he mixes nasturtium flowers with chopped parsley and chervil. Nasturtium leaves are a component of his baby lettuce mixes and line his banquet platters.
“Growing herbs on site not only helps offset the costs of buying fresh herbs, but lets me train young cooks [in] what fresh herbs look like,” Peterson explains.
But it’s not only the young chefs who are learning about herbs. “Working with the horticulture staff and volunteers in the public garden, I’ve learned when to plant and when not to plant,” Peterson says. “I used to overfeed plants, but not anymore. And though I thought I had a good grasp of herbs, I never knew how many hundreds of varieties there were and how each one has to be handled individually. What other chef gets to see vanilla grown in the Hidden Jungle exhibit? Most important, I’ve learned herbs have their own personality.”
Laura Daily of Snowmass Village, Colorado, takes cooking lessons whenever she can. She enjoys grilling year round, even in the snow.
By Laura Daily