Lee Jones
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Lee Jones

Jim Poris / June 2006

Food Arts presents the June 2006 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Lee Jones—and by extension his father Bob, mother Barbara, and brother Bobby—whose tilling and toiling have raised The Chef's Garden of Huron, Ohio, into the preeminent grower and source of sustainably raised organic produce for restaurants and hotels. Modern-day Joads who picked themselves up by the bootstraps after a crop-killing hailstorm forced divestiture of their 100 acre commercial vegetable farm in 1983—Lee's trademarked red bow tie, of which he owns "a couple of dozen," is his nod to the "guys in The Grapes of Wrath who displayed their dignity and respect when they went dancing by putting a tie on with their overalls"—the Joneses now rotate 612 different items harvested during six to eight stages of development among 100 of their 210 acres every year and sell to nearly 2,000 outlets, some of which are run by chefs with names like Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, and Norman Van Aken.

As if that were not enough to get a farmer out of bed before the cock crows, Lee oversaw the 2003 debut of The Culinary Vegetable Institute, an 11,000-square-foot facility that serves as an R&D/hospitality center for visiting chefs, located three miles from the farm in Milan (see "R&D Kitchen of the Year," Food Arts, December 2003, page 85). Hundreds of chefs have availed themselves of Lee's largesse, including Ferran Adrià, who recently was flown there unannounced from Chicago by Trotter, who then cooked the Spanish chef and his wife a 12 course meal featuring the farm's produce (see Recipes & Techniques). And then there's Veggie U., an educational program the Joneses devised to encourage children to consume nutritious foods that's used in grammar school classrooms in 22 states.

Lee and his family leaped from loss to gain to fame by following one revelatory lesson: listen to the chefs. "Chefs molded us," Lee says, who, working off his own six acre plot, revived his fortune by fulfilling local chefs' requests for such exotica as zucchini flowers. "We were so desperate to survive in agriculture and so fortunate that a handful of chefs took the time to guide us. We became the farm extension of their kitchens, working with them to increase flavor and presentation."

In the process, The Chef's Garden has become a model for sustainable agriculture that transcends geographic boundaries and food culture ideology. "In 1930, our county [Erie] had the highest concentration of vegetable growers in the world. There are now maybe 12 left. I believe in supporting local farms, but we also have to redefine the relationship between chef and artisanal producers so that it's socially acceptable and financially motivating to stay on the land."

"You know, I was at Trotter's a few years back when Frédy Girardet was there to cook, and Girardet came up to me and said, ‘When I was your age the farmer and the chef were looked at the same way as a garbage man. Look at us now.'"