A Kansas City chef and artist take inspiration from their eclectic and abundant backyard garden.
You know you are in the presence of professional foodies who are serious about growing robust fruits and vegetables that will be plucked, picked or dug up daily for dinner when you hear what Peter Crump gave his partner, Cody Hogan, for Christmas: A beehive.
Despite being hard to wrap, the hive of zealous pollinators was the ideal gift for Cody. In the years since, it has taken the couple’s backyard garden to new heights. The plum trees exploded with fruit for homemade jams, chutneys, candies, liqueurs and infused vinegars. The apple trees produced enough abundance to make apple-ginger jam and fiery pepper and apple jelly. For Cody and Peter, growing and eating fabulously fresh food isn’t just a personal pleasure. It’s a profession and a philosophy they pass on to others—one steaming plate of melt-in-your-mouth butternut squash ravioli, garlic braised mustard greens or Swiss chard risotto at a time.
On a busy Friday night in Kansas City, Missouri’s, hip downtown Crossroads Arts District, you’ll find Cody and Peter creating and serving masterpieces like these to the eclectic crowd of art aficionados and business professionals who flock to Lidia’s Kansas City, a popular Italian restaurant where Cody is the chef de cuisine and Peter is a server. The inventive cuisine that guests enjoy at this celebrated restaurant is often inspired by the produce grown in Peter and Cody’s own backyard garden, a densely planted Eden that serves as their culinary muse, botanical laboratory and personal retreat. Every inch of this reimagined suburban lawn is dedicated to the celebration of food and life.
Cody didn’t always dream of arming himself with a 10-inch chef’s knife and making people’s dinner dreams come true. A pianist since age 8, Cody was busy earning his master’s degree in piano performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory when he took a break to study abroad in Germany. His host family was crazy about cuisine and delighted in introducing their hungry American ward to the best food in the region where the borders of Germany, France and Switzerland meet.
Cody came back with a newfound passion for food. To break into the restaurant business, he volunteered for guest chefs who came to Kansas City for events. They liked this eager kid, gave him their cards and told him to look them up if he was ever in town. With nothing to lose, one day Cody packed up his car and road-tripped to California. Eventually, he landed in the famed kitchen of Chez Panisse working for Alice Waters, the revered evangelist of the fresh, local, sustainable food movement. Waters’ trophy case of accolades, including the Global Environmental Citizen Award, is a tribute to her groundbreaking work as an advocate for the environment and the taste buds.
“I learned so much about what good ingredients taste and look like,” Cody says. “At restaurants, the easy way out is to buy everything from commercial purveyors. A lot of the products are designed to store well, not necessarily taste great.”
What Cody gleaned from Waters—use local, seasonal and organic foods, and let the flavors of the foods stand on their own—would forever shape his approach to cooking and gardening. Soon after, Cody got a call from Lidia Bastianich, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef with seven restaurants, 10 cookbooks and an Emmy award-winning cooking show to her credit. She wanted Cody to help open her Lidia’s Kansas City restaurant.
“When I told Alice I was going to work for Lidia, she said, ‘I want you to take everything you’ve learned here and use it back in the Midwest,’” Cody says. Not to worry, he says: “The Italian ideal is to take food that is very local, very fresh and very seasonal and use it. When it’s gone, they move on to the next ingredients that come into season.”
To snare the best ingredients for Lidia’s, Cody became a zealous customer at the Kansas City farmers market, packing his car with the produce that would inspire the menu at Lidia’s each day.
“I would spend $1,000 easily at the farmers market,” he says. “My car started to smell like a vegetable truck.” As the orders grew, the farmers began delivering directly to the restaurant.
Today, Cody works with local organic farmers to grow special varieties of vegetables favored by Italian chefs such as agretti, a green from Italy that has seduced him with its lemony taste. He likes to braise it and use it atop pizza. The seeds, brought from Italy, thrived in Cody and Peter’s garden, so he’s eager to encourage local farmers to grow it in large enough quantities for the restaurant.
Cody’s wide-ranging duties as the chef de cuisine stretch from investigating new produce to showbiz. He assists with Bastianich’s PBS cooking show, Lidia’s Italy, prepping food for as many as 26 episodes at a time. He also goes with Bastianich when she travels the country making appearances and cooking for PBS events.
As Cody was making his way from the piano bench to the kitchen, Peter was making his own unconventional and personal journey to the garden and table. “I was a pharmaceutical rep for a while and became disenchanted with the whole experience,” Peter says. “I wanted to do something more creative.”
Peter found his passion as a concrete artist, studying with designers on each coast to learn the alchemy of the medium. As he built his commissions, he worked at Lidia’s as a server.
When your job is pleasing hundreds of discriminating diners, you need a personal retreat where you can restore your sanity. For Cody and Peter, one of those places is their garden. In the nine years the men have been partners, they’ve fused their love of traveling with eating well and gardening.
When Cody bought the 1922 bungalow that is his and Peter’s home, he had big plans for its unremarkable yard. He watched the patterns of the light for a full year before creating a French potager garden, mixing vegetables, flowers and fruit together. The resulting visual feast is an ever-evolving topsy-turvy mix of prim topiary, wild looping vines, rustic wooden structures and sleek concrete accents crafted by Peter.
While Peter didn’t grow up gardening as Cody did, now he’s a pro: “It was like walking into the laboratory. Everywhere you turn, you are learning something new. It’s become my favorite hobby.”
Brick and flagstone paths meander through the beds, lined in places by espaliered apple and pear trees, trained young to grow low and flat on a bamboo frame. A pergola, screened from the sun by a bamboo hedge and a ceiling of hyacinth vines, anchors the garden. The seeds for the vines are from Thomas Jefferson’s famed home, Monticello.
At the garden’s epicenter stands a wooden obelisk Peter built with cedar from Cody’s family ranch in Arkansas. Peter also created the concrete fountain that stands at the garden’s front, a soothing respite and a watering hole for the garden’s birds and bees.
One of their big projects was building a Pompeiian pizza oven, inspired by those they saw while on a pizza recon mission in Italy. They stoke the oven to a roaring 900 degrees and cook a few Neapolitan pizzas in minutes.
Then, Cody says, “We take out the fire and can do a big roast. After that, we can bake bread in the leftover heat. Then, at the end of the night, we put a pot of beans and water in the oven and close it up, and the next morning, you have the creamiest beans you can imagine.”
Zealots about sustainable, organic gardening techniques, the men ensure everything from bolstering crop performance to handling pests is done naturally. They fertilize the soil with their own compost: “Equal parts brown stuff and green stuff,” Cody says. “We’re lazy composters. But whatever we’re doing, it works.”
To combat pests, they try various methods—their most successful technique is sprinkling generous amounts of coffee grounds around the plants. The next day, the bugs are gone. But the squirrels that shamelessly rob them of their ripe plums, pears and apples have not been so easy to chase away. So Peter has declared war. Whenever he sees a squirrel in a fruit tree, he loads a slingshot with fallen plums and zings them at the furry thieves. “I have only hit one squirrel, but it scares them off,” he says.
At this home, the garden decides what’s for dinner. Each day’s menu is driven by what is ready to dig up, snip or pluck. “We eat what’s growing outside. You can’t get much more connected to nature than that,” Cody says.
Inspiration for the spring, summer and fall growing seasons comes from the couple’s personal palate and their penchant to try new things.
“We like to grow things you can’t find at the grocery store,” Cody says. Specific varieties of greens, such as purple mustards, Swiss chard, tender Italian dandelions and radicchio zuccherino are at the top of their list. “In the early spring, they are not terribly bitter so we eat them raw, or dress them with something that plays off the bitter a bit,” Cody says. As the weather gets warmer, Cody’s cooking techniques change to balance the greens’ strengthening flavor. “I might braise them with garlic and add flavors like pork pancetta or onions.”
Just about everything picked from the garden can be thrown into risotto, one of Cody’s favorite things to make. “It’s a great vehicle for any kind of leftover, like roast, bacon, tomato sauce or any kind of produce,” he says.
Another fresh-picked favorite is potatoes. “Right after you dig them up, the skin is almost nonexistent and you can almost brush it off. They cook quickly and you don’t have to do anything to them, maybe a little salt and
butter,” Cody says.
“With a little help, we have things growing in the garden all year long,” Cody says. “There could be snow outside and we pull up the cold frame and have a salad.”
What they can’t eat fresh-picked, they store and enjoy for months. Squash, potatoes and onions are put up in the cellar. Fruit and veggies are canned. Greens are blanched then frozen, or turned into pasta sauce or pizza toppings. And the potted herbs are moved inside and put by a sunny window to add zest to meals all winter long.
Just as they have turned their garden into an oasis that reflects their shared passion for fresh food, the interior of their home is an evolved reflection of their love of friends and family; art and music; sentiment and serendipity.
Here, Peter’s artwork steals the show. Dinner is served on a custom table he fashioned from a mixture of pea gravel and concrete poured over a form then sanded to a soft finish. It’s full of visual texture and movement, the stones making a mosaic of browns and creams that give the illusion of petrified wood. He also created a sink in the powder room and artwork for the hallway.
The focal point of their eclectic living room is a sleek concrete fireplace mantel Peter created—a provocative juxtaposition to the midcentury modern furniture that fills the room. Two walls are wallpapered with bookcases chock-full of cookbooks and garden design tomes. To the back of the room stands a 19th-century grand piano, a treasured gift from Cody’s grandmother.
A small back room off the kitchen has become a pantry. Here, chef’s tools and Mason jars filled with goodies from the garden share space with kitchen curiosities the couple discovered at estate sales.
But as with most homes, the heart of Cody and Peter’s house is the kitchen. Custom cherry cabinets serve as the base for Peter’s handcrafted artisan concrete counters. They are topped with enameled bowls and baskets filled with the day’s picks: ruby red tomatoes, beans, apples, ears of corn, onions and chard. It’s a Dutch painting come to life.
On the stove, a pot of chard risotto simmers, filling the room with an earthy aroma you can almost taste. The table is set, a bottle of wine opened, and you are sure you have died and gone to heaven.
Chefs are often particular about their knives. What are your must-have blades in the kitchen?
Sharp ones! I like a 10- to 12-inch standard chef’s knife, a serrated knife and a paring knife. That’s all you have to have—the rest are just for fun.
What is your worst professional chef kitchen disaster?
I was teaching a dessert class and in the previous class, they had been using salt. Someone dumped all the salt in the sugar container. I made a whole bunch of desserts in this class with salt mixed with sugar. After tasting the dessert, someone in the class asked, “Is this supposed to taste this salty?”
You’re stranded on a desert island, but can choose a few favorite foods. What do you have to have?
Margherita pizza; margaritas; duck roasted in a fireplace; negronis (a cocktail that is equal parts gin, Campari bitters and sweet vermouth).
What’s a new plant you’re trying in your garden that you love?
Sunchoke, also called Jerusalem artichoke. It’s a potato-like root that you can grill, eat raw or mash. When it’s raw, it’s very firm and crisp. As you cook it, it almost disintegrates and becomes a mash. It has a sweetness to it and is kind of nutty.
You both travel extensively in Italy for business and pleasure. What can’t-miss spots do you recommend?
The North. The food is fascinating because it has so many influences from Austria.
The Adriatic Coast. It’s just beautiful.
Rome. “The first time I went to Rome I was there two days and didn’t like it,” Peter says. “But when I went back and stayed for a week, it was amazing. The secret is to stay longer.”
Venice in the winter. “You could be the only people in the Piazza San Marcos in the wintertime; otherwise, there might be thousands of tourists,” Peter says.
Writer Micki Chestnut lives in fun and funky Lawrence, Kansas, where she loves to glean fresh veggies from the farmers market, experiment with vegan cooking, lose herself in a good book in her backyard, and hike on the prairie.