Harvest Home - Glen Leven provides culinary and historic abundance
September 08, 2010
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,
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
“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
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
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
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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