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Harvest Home - Glen Leven provides culinary and historic abundance

September 08, 2010

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Sometimes the paradigm shift surprises you when it comes. We imagine change as a gigantic thing that suddenly smiles down upon us and says, “Hey, the future’s here.” But it often arrives in the gentlest of ways, and leaves us reflecting that we didn’t see it coming at all, but we’re glad for it. In the food community, the continual shifts toward local and sustainable—a reminder too that everything old is new again—seem to be happening constantly, so much so that when one considers how far the Nashville area has come in the past few years, it’s stunning.

And it’s come in like a lamb, not a lion—farmers’ markets have proliferated and organic and natural farms have sprung up and thrived, as have local dairies and a plethora of businesses whose goal is to help area residents find food not processed and saturated in chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. Five years ago, we might have hoped of, but probably wouldn’t have expected, being where we are now. And the restaurant community has led the way.

Martha Stamps, Jeremy Barlow, Margot McCormack and a host of other local chefs and restaurateurs—not the least of whom has been Tyler Brown at the Capitol Grille—have been consistently raising the bar for all of us in recent years. The regular use of produce and meats raised in the region and commitment to sustainable agriculture by locally owned restaurants is becoming exemplary. Laymen are becoming used to seeing Delvin Farms, Long Hungry Creek, Avalon Acres and Bonnie Blue Farms printed on the menus they order from—and patrons are excited about seasonal, local foods.

Now, the bar has quietly gone up again, although a bit of fanfare is warranted. A joint project between the Land Trust for Tennessee and the Hermitage Hotel brings us into an even closer relationship to the concept of farm-to-table, as Tyler Brown and his exceptional staff have begun using the garden at Glen Leven, a Land Trust property, to grow some 70 percent of the produce used on the Capitol Grille menu themselves.

If the name “Glen Leven” has you scratching your heads, it’s worth looking into. Anyone commuting downtown via Eighth Avenue South probably passes it daily without realizing it, though it’s set near Father Ryan High School and Glen Leven Presbyterian Church. But if you take the proper turn near the church, through the rock wall and the trees, you’ll find yourself on the lovely, instantly bucolic 66-acre historic property once owned by the Thompson family.

Among Glen Leven’s beauties sits a gorgeous 19th century home with a history of Civil War occupation—currently empty—and a host of outbuildings. The property is bordered by creeks and streams, covered with old-growth trees and maintains a pristine sense of isolation from the city, despite being set in the heart of a busy community. Willed to the Land Trust in 2007 by the late Susan West, the 501(c)3 organization dedicated to preserving Tennessee’s landscapes is wisely taking its time making decisions about what becomes of the property. Ultimately, anything that happens must both fulfill the wishes of the late Ms. West and the mission of the Land Trust.

“It’s important the public knows that we’re actively exploring the best uses for the property,” says the Land Trust’s Liz Edsall McLaurin. “We’re finding those through small pilot projects, which always come back to what we consider the ‘three-legged stool’ of goals supporting it all: historic preservation, open space conservation and sustainable farming.”

Each of these goals ties back to the goals of the historic Hermitage Hotel and its Capitol Grille as well, so a relationship between the two, carefully built, promises to potentially produce exceptional fruit. The Hermitage, which recently celebrated its own centennial, has a lasting interest in preserving elements of Nashville’s past, according to Janet Kurtz, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.

The relationship got rolling, Greg Sligh, managing director at the Hermitage, tells me, because the Land Trust approached the hotel as a potential donor, after the two organizations made a connection through Land Trust board member and Hermitage Hotel historian Ridley Wills.

“Truthfully, our budget isn’t such that we can make a lot of large donations, so we tend to do things like align with specific partners and put as much energy into it as possible.”

Sligh and his team considered what might be done about preservation to pique the interests of their thousands of annual guests. In his previous position at the Hermitage’s sister property, Kiawah Island Resort, he’d helped build a similar relationship with the Kiawah Conservancy, educating guests about the value of preserving natural habitat on the island, and encouraging them to donate to help.

“It struck me we could do something like that—something new for an urban hotel, really,” says Sligh. After a discussion with Land Trust President Jeanie Nelson, the Land Trust and the Hermitage worked together, creating a brochure to educate hotel visitors about the work the Land Trust does, and offering them the opportunity to donate. The response was tremendous.

“We’re tracking at something like 85 percent of guests donating— it’s huge, people are very enthusiastic,” says Sligh. With a turnover of something like 30,000 room nights per year, including lots of repeat guests, that’s impressive—guests are encouraged to donate just $2 per night of stay. Since the program’s inception in July 2008, the Hermitage has donated more than $100,000, preserving forever more than 1,000 acres of Tennessee land. With New York’s Central Park coming in at about 850 acres, you get a sense of how much impact two years of donations alone have made.

“When I heard we’d preserved as much land as Central Park— well, that’s just an amazing equation,” says Sligh with a huge smile.

The notion of bringing farming into the picture wasn’t instantaneous, but it fell into place perfectly. Sligh, along with Tyler Brown, spoke with Nelson. “We wanted them to let us know what they’d allow us to do—sort of get doors open for future possibilities,” says Sligh. “We really wanted to just build, plant and harvest a garden, and see how it goes ... but now it all comes full circle when you see it on the plate.”

“We’ve been really pleased by the enthusiasm around the Hermitage project,” says Edsall McLaurin. “I’m not surprised; it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”

At the point the garden concept truly materialized, the Hermitage had already spent a year establishing a fundraising relationship with the Land Trust. The Land Trust staff in turn already knew they had something special on their hands with the property, and the addition of a hotel garden seemed an organic outgrowth of everyone’s goals for the property, including the late Susan West’s. Of course, it had to be done the right way. (The garden exists through a written arrangement that must be renewed annually.)

The planting space turns out to possess a certain kismet. Back in the day, it was the garden for the old Maxwell House Hotel, tying it to Nashville’s hotel and culinary culture with some excellent food karma. New farmer Tyler Brown says of the venture that the best part was having more than a year from concept to garden, so he had plenty of time to think about what he wanted to be done.

“There are lots of single restaurants with gardens on the property, but this is really on a larger scale. I’d been to Manresa, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, starred restaurants, places on the coasts working with farms, but I don’t really know of another hotel that’s doing stuff like this ... and I didn’t really want to plant a garden just to see it grow, I wanted to do it on our scale,” says Brown.

More, he tied the plantings and the menu to traditional Southern cuisine, with echoes of the native food cultures that came up from the post-Civil War era, through the Depression to the Victory Gardens of the 1940s—paralleling the history of the house with a culinary vocabulary.

Brown’s bona fides when it comes to a commitment to healthy and sustainable eating are pretty impressive. A new father, he believes in making sure his own child grows up eating right and responsibly, with healthy food options in a world where plenty of kids think all vegetables come in cans ... if at all.

“It’s part of my mission to educate and involve children,” says Brown. “I want to make a difference while I’m here on earth ... and that means you need to push yourself sometimes, set an example, create a path others can follow, and hope that it’ll come back to people having these conversations about where food comes from.”

What he and his fellows, including chef de cuisine Cole Ellis, are making happen at the Capitol Grille emphasizes that you can indeed produce enough food to supply a high-end, much frequented restaurant in a sustainable manner.

Not every chef wants dirty hands in the “off” hours as Brown and Ellis do, and that’s just fine. There are plenty of exceptional farms in the area producing crops to be used by talented chefs. (And you’ll still find products from Tennessee-based Cruze Dairy, Long Hungry Creek and the like, plus imports from sustainable farms—e.g. meats from Niman Ranch or Painted Hills—on the Capitol Grille menu). Nevertheless, it’s the realization of the possibility alone that opens both doors and minds—and it underlines that it’s possible to be a chef-farmer in something rather larger than an itty-bitty bistro.

Brown is using almost entirely heirloom vegetables, as well as organic, sustainable agricultural methods to grow his produce. And while the Capitol Grille staff work as farmers, there’s also no shortage of volunteers wanting to come out.

The first day I visit, tramping the land in heels with the rest of the press, Brown takes pride in showing me rows of plants, telling me what he’ll replace them with in the next season, and then showing me the native plants—lamb’s quarter, Japanese basil—that grow wild and also make their way into meals. He’s so excited by the bounty around him (and more to come), it’s just infectious.

“We’re all emotionally invested now,” says Janet Kurtz. She tells me about events at the farm—a potato sorting that drew crowds the night before our interview, for example. “It’s a huge commitment, and it’s so neat to see this happen—and there’s the chef pulling, sorting and grading with everyone.”

When the floods came, including along Brown’s Creek on the property, the first thing she did was text Brown, hoping the garden was okay (miraculously, it was fine).

Liz Edsall McLaurin tells of bringing out her young sons to participate, knowing the fun they have now will impact their lives years later.

“It’s been amazing to see the awakening of the farmer in Tyler,” she says with a delighted grin. “He gets his hands dirty, doesn’t mess around—and he’s willing to share with anybody, even bitty kids. He wanted everyone to come see and understand how it ends up on the table, and it all matches the Land Trust’s mission so well. And it’s great to see people from the hotel who aren’t chefs gardening alongside our volunteers, too.”

We’re excited to see what comes next. And to volunteer a little time, especially knowing excess food goes to the needy. And, oh yeah, we can’t wait to try new menu items as crops ripen ... Hey, pass the gazpacho, will you?

For more information, to arrange a tour of the Glen Leven property or to make your own donation to the Land Trust for Tennessee, visit landtrusttn.org or email glenleven@landtrusttn.org.

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