Did you grow up hearing your mom say, “Eat your vegetables!” at the dinner table every night? She was right, according to Farmer Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden.
The 350-acre family-run farm in Huron, Ohio, is hallowed ground for chefs around the world seeking the most delicious and nutritious vegetables. It has counted Emeril Lagasse, Curtis Duffy, and the late Charlie Trotter and Paul Bocuse among its customers, and you’ll find its premium produce on menus from New York’s Eleven Madison Park to international Ritz Carlton restaurants.
As Jones puts it, “What you see now is the result of my dad, Bob Jones, following his vision to do the work he loved.”
Before they supplied celebrity chefs, the Jones family cultivated commodity crops. In 1982, a hailstorm wiped out everything. They auctioned off the farm and started over, growing produce to sell at farmers markets.
One day, a chef asked for three-inch zucchinis with the blooms still attached.
“Dad thought it was a pretty unusual request, but she said she’d pay 50 cents each. That got his attention,” Jones said.
The chef, Iris Bailin Broudy, explained the importance of vegetables in her menu and her need for flavorful ones grown with regenerative farming practices, which work to improve the environment. She introduced the Jones family to her circle of chefs, who in turn told others.
“Dad saw our future was growing vegetables for chefs,” Jones said.
Now he wakes up every day intent on improving the world with better vegetables.
The Chef’s Garden has grown to include the Culinary Vegetable Institute, an agricultural research lab, and a bed-and-breakfast for the 600 chefs who visit each year. By using regenerative farming techniques, such as avoiding synthetic fertilizers and GMOs and growing soil-replenishing cover crops, “our soil is 300 to 500 percent superior to USDA standards, and our vegetables have 50 percent more nutrients,” Jones said.
“You can see and taste the difference, which is why so many chefs work with us to keep making improvements.”
When the pandemic hit, restaurants closed, and sales dropped, Jones kept the farm afloat by starting a mail-order service with fresh produce boxes, seed packs, a cookbook, and more for both chefs and home cooks.
Jones’s father died in August 2020, but his legacy lives on.
“Dad taught us to work hard, be willing to fail in order to learn, and be loyal to our employees and customers,” he said.
Asked what he would be if not a farmer, he had an easy answer: “Disappointed. I’m a dirt farmer. It’s in my DNA.”
Meet the Farmer
Born and Lives: Huron, Ohio
Favorite Vegetable: Right now, Brussels sprouts, “but during the three months of asparagus season, I’d eat it three times a day.”
Culinary Heroes: “All the chefs from around the world I’ve met and worked with and who have become friends.”