Want to garden like John Mooney? Then head to the roof

The chef at NYC’s acclaimed Bell, Book & Candle grows 60 percent of his ingredients right above his restaurant
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John Mooney in his rooftop garden at Bell, Book & Candle, Manhattan. As featured in The Garden Chef
John Mooney in his rooftop garden at Bell, Book & Candle, Manhattan. As featured in The Garden Chef

You don’t need a massive garden to grow your own food; just ask New York chef John Mooney. He and his business partner Mick O’Sullivan opened Bell Book & Candle in a converted launderette in New York’s West Village in 2010.

“It was the first restaurant in the city to have its own aeroponic rooftop garden, and subsequently won awards for its sustainable approach,” explains our new book, The Garden Chef: Recipes and Stories from Plant to Plate. “At least 60 percent of the ingredients used in the restaurant’s casual, seasonal dishes are from the on-site garden.”

Aeroponic cultivation – for those who aren’t up on the latest agricultural techniques – is a way of nurturing plants in an air or mist environment, without using soil. That might sound unnecessarily technical, but Mooney says there are some fairly straightforward advantages.

 

John Mooney in his rooftop garden at Bell, Book & Candle, Manhattan
John Mooney in his rooftop garden at Bell, Book & Candle, Manhattan

“In a soil-free, aeroponic system pests are less of an issue and the garden needs a lot less maintenance,” explains the chef in our new book. “The plants we grow get everything they need from the nutrient solution that is held in an elevated reservoir—every 12 minutes the water runs through the towers drenching the plants roots. The reservoir gravity feeds the whole garden using no energy other than the pump, which uses the equivalent power of Christmas tree lights. It also uses less than 10 percent of the water required to grow the same quantity conventionally, and we have rapid growth because the plant food is more easily obtained—we can harvest a lettuce in four weeks, tomatoes in less than three months.”

The system is also well suited to big-city setting. “The empty 2,400 square-feet (223-square-meter) roof space, with great views of the Empire State Building, was going to waste, so the landlord let us have it for free and it is now home to 60 vertical growing towers,” says Mooney. “There is no soil so the whole garden is light enough to sit six stories up on the 100-year-old building.”

Not every aspect of Bell, Book & Candle’s garden is highly technical; Mooney and his staff don’t use fertilizer or pesticides, preferring natural remedies. “For example, if we have an attack of aphids we release predatory mites to remove them,” he says. They also winch ingredients down from the roof the old-fashioned way, with a bucket and pulley system. 

 

Rooftop heirloom tomato and basil salad, by John Mooney at Bell, Book & Candle
Rooftop heirloom tomato and basil salad, by John Mooney at Bell, Book & Candle

The close proximity of the garden has inspired chef and his brigade. “We all brainstorm new and interesting ways to use our amazing products,” says the chef. “Edible flowers such as squash blossoms are stuffed with mushrooms and goat cheese, then lightly roasted to showcase their quality and delicate beauty. We make salads from our heirloom tomatoes and plates of roasted vegetables. Multicolored nasturtiums are placed atop rooftop greens to add vibrant color and a subtle peppery finish to the taste of a dish.”

Anything that isn’t used immediately gets preserved, composted at the local famer’s market, or given always to the building’s fellow tenants.

 

The Garden Chef

To find out more about this unusual cultivation technique, and the kind of dishes it can yield, order a copy of The Garden Chef here.

 


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