Tending chef’s garden

Gardeners Debbie Martin, of Windsor, and Leigh Steel, of Oamaru. Photo: Hamish MacLean.
Gardeners Debbie Martin, of Windsor, and Leigh Steel, of Oamaru. Photo: Hamish MacLean.
Riverstone Kitchen owner Bevan Smith calls his on-site 12-year-old gardens "the engine room" of his award-winning restaurant. Hamish MacLean talks to Leigh Steel, of Oamaru, and Debbie Martin, of Windsor, whose green fingers supply the produce that, in part, dictates the menu at Riverstone.

Q What’s a typical day working in the garden?

[Debbie] It can be quite different, very different. It’s pulling out spent plants, to putting more compost on, to building wee walls, or borders. Weeding. How could I have left out weeding? Which is really great; it’s not Groundhog Day every day. You’re doing something different a lot of the time.

Q How much communication do you have with Bevan [Mr Smith] and the kitchen team?

Is there much flexibility.[Leigh] We have a great relationship. There’s very good banter between the kitchen team and ourselves. You’re always working ... my thoughts at the moment are to the end of winter. That’s what I’m dealing with at the moment in my head. Spring’s our big one. Usually, at the beginning of spring is probably our big one that he [Mr Smith] has got things in mind, a direction that he might want to go. And that’s our job, making sure that that’s all in the garden and ticking along, so when the guys in the restaurant want something, it’s there.

Q So it’s not ongoing?

[Leigh] It is, Thursday, Friday are our main picking days. The guys will say, ‘We need a crate of this and a crate of that.’ [Garden staff] will go out and pick it for them. It’s those guys’ jobs to make sure it’s all on board first. Then the girls in the kitchen process it, and the boys cook it. It is a good relationship, but, no, it’s not a day-in and day-out thing.

Q What are the biggest challenges to growing in the area?

[Leigh] We have our own conditions here. Because of the type of ground and soil that we have, it’s very stony. It’s watering through summer, it is an issue. You can water and you can almost see it disappear into the ground. It doesn’t hold for that long and it dries out. That’s a big one through the summer, just making sure that there is enough water going on board. And then in through winter, it’s just protecting from the frost. It’s usually about 2degC colder out here than it is in town. Just making sure that anything that is a bit young and tender, that it’s under cover and protected. Because we just can’t really afford a failure, because then the guys would have to buy it in.

Q How about your gardens at home, do you have a favourite thing to grow at home? Any tips for growing it, or eating it?

[Leigh] Silverbeet. Start off with the soil, if you’ve got good soils, get your plants in and water it — you can’t go wrong. Just lightly steam it so it’s still got body to it.

[Debbie] I would have to say new potatoes. Just plenty of water, enough water. I do boil them, boil them, and butter. And the next day made into chips is really nice. New potatoes made into chips, mmm, bad news. But I blame my auntie. Growing up, whenever we were on holidays, we got new spuds for brekkie.

Q What are some of the unusual varieties that you grow here?

[Leigh] Kohlrabi, celeriac, cavolo nero is one of the ones that we get asked all the time ‘What is that?’ Those are probably the three that people, you can see them look, or ask us, ‘Oh, what do you do with those?’ Those are probably the three big ones?

Q Is there anything you wish you could grow, but can’t?

[Leigh] Citrus. Avocados. All that sort of fruit that needs consistently warm days and warm nights. We just don’t have the climate for it here, but it would be so nice.

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