Gourmet Green Thumbs

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Chefs reap the benefits of freshly picked produce with on-site gardens outside homes and restaurants.

By Ryan Ritchie | Photos by Jody Tiongco

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Chef Azmin Ghahreman’s backyard garden provides ingredients for many dishes at Sapphire Laguna, from lemon thyme vinaigrette to plum chutney.


Most people choose restaurants based on criteria like location, menu items and wine selection. As important as these attributes are to an enjoyable dining experience, an often-overlooked element of a successful restaurant is the food itself—or, more specifically, where that food comes from. Not surprisingly, eateries with private gardens provide guests with the freshest ingredients available.

In a perfect world, all restaurants would have customized gardens to suit their culinary needs. Nothing is perfect, however, and plenty of dining establishments are unable to grow their own produce due to lack of space or enough time to do so.

Luckily, three local restaurants do have the space and time to grow their own ingredients. Sapphire Laguna, for instance, relies on chef Azmin Ghahreman’s backyard garden for herbs and fruits, while Studio at Montage Laguna Beach sources food from an on-site garden and chef Craig Strong’s backyard. Wherever the ingredients originate, customers enjoy delicious plates while employees gain a sense of pride from knowing that the dishes they serve contribute to a unique culinary experience.

Sapphire Laguna

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Azmin and his Chef de Cuisine Devin Wells incorporate homegrown herbs in Sapphire Laguna’s dishes.

You might know Azmin Ghahreman as the owner and head chef at Sapphire Laguna, a restaurant beloved for dishes like Chianti-braised short ribs, oven-roasted lamb sirloin and crispy skin barramundi. But what you might not know is that the 53-year-old gourmet also has a green thumb. This passion for gardening is hardly a recent development; in fact, Azmin says a test he took before he even became a chef predicted his future interest. “The first thing [the test] said was that I wanted to be a chef,” he explains. “The second thing it said, if I wasn’t a chef, was that I’d be a farmer. So growing things from the ground up is my love and my forte.”

These days, Azmin has an approximately 15-inch raised garden in his backyard, which features seasonal fruits, greens, vegetables and herbs such as thyme, oregano and bay leaves. The chef turns these bay leaves into powdered seasonings for various meats; the powder is so fresh, he says, that he typically uses only one bay leaf as opposed to five from a grocery store. “With my bay leaves, definitely you can tell a difference—definitely,” he remarks. “Bay leaves are more pungent, so if I was to give 1 pound of other bay leaves and 1 pound of mine, mine would kill.”

Peppers are among the vegetables grown by Azmin.
Peppers are among the vegetables grown by Azmin.

He estimates that Sapphire Laguna cooks with approximately 100 pounds of thyme and 500 pounds of basil a year, which means the restaurant has to buy ingredients from outside sources. That said, Sapphire Laguna does use as many of the chef’s backyard fruits, vegetables, greens and herbs as possible. For example, Azmin’s plums find their way onto diners’ plates in the form of plum chutney on curries and plum-sugar-vanilla pancakes with Devonshire cream. For those who want to sample his homegrown food, Azmin says holidays such as Valentine’s Day, when the restaurant featured lemon thyme vinaigrette, are times when he’s known to use his backyard ingredients.

A restaurant that produces its own ingredients is obviously a boon for diners for reasons of freshness, but Azmin claims that having a personal garden also helps his business. Not only has gardening taught him the ins and outs of cooking, but it has also created a healthier working environment for his employees. “The staff is proud to say, ‘This thyme dressing came from the chef’s garden,’ ” he says. “That is a positive reinforcement of connecting back with people.”

Although Azmin has been a chef for more than 33 years, a recent trip to Tahiti, Bora Bora, Cooks Island, Tonga, New Zealand and Fiji reminded him of why he makes the extra effort to grow his own food. While in Auckland, New Zealand, he heard a saying that goes, “Always be faithful to quality—words to live and eat by.” It’s a mantra he continues to apply to his personal and professional lives.

Studio at Montage Laguna Beach

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Craig Strong, executive chef of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, uses fresh fruit from the restaurant’s garden.

It’s true—mothers really do know best. Just ask Craig Strong, executive chef of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, who says his passion for gardening and cooking can be attributed to his mom, a woman he describes as a “wonderful home cook.”

“I had two older brothers, and we had to do yard work,” Craig says. “I was too young to push the lawn mower but not too young to pull weeds and to garden. My mom had this beautiful garden with drip irrigation, and because I was pulling weeds and watching corn, squash and tomatoes grow, it was a natural progression to see where it went next. A love for cooking started from there.”

At home, the 42-year-old chef, his wife and their daughter enjoy an approximately 100-square-foot garden featuring arugula, habanero peppers, African basil, lemon verbena, kale, chamomile and “lots of lettuces.” But it’s not all herbs and greens at the Strong household, as their backyard garden also includes trees growing grapefruit, oranges, Meyer lemons, limes, kumquats and figs. With so many crops grown on-site, it comes as no surprise when the chef estimates that 70 percent of his family’s fruits and vegetables come from their own backyard. It’s also no surprise that much of what Craig grows at home is served at Studio.

“The lemon verbena comes to the restaurant,” he says. “I have three plants, and there’s no way I’d ever use that much [at home]. Also, the mint at my house is the mint I use for the restaurant.”

Craig’s love of gardening isn’t limited to his home, as Studio features its own 1,000-square-foot garden with five raised stone beds in front of the restaurant. The bounty of herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers also benefits the restaurant’s staff, as Craig and his co-workers are able to enjoy a hands-on experience that adds to the quality of the cooking process.

“There’s a connection between the chef and the food,” he explains. “The greatest benefit of having the garden is what my chefs see and the effort that it takes to grow. They have more respect for that product, and that will spill over into our guest experience.”

The chef likens the difference between fresh ingredients from a local garden and store-bought items to a group of musicians adept at playing together and a mish-mash band of players who are out of tune. An average person might not have a culinary background, but he or she typically knows whether the food he is eating is fresh.
“I can’t play any instruments, but I can hear when music is out of tune,” he says. “That’s the same thing as food that is perfectly ripe and seasoned just right. When you don’t know exactly what it is that’s making something amazing, often that’s just the taste of quality.”

The Ranch at Laguna Beach
Executive Chef Camron Woods can grow ingredients for unique dishes in The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s garden.
Executive Chef Camron Woods can grow ingredients for unique dishes in The Ranch at Laguna Beach’s garden.

At what point does a garden become a farm? It’s a question asked often at The Ranch at Laguna Beach (formerly known as Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course—the property re-launched as The Ranch at Laguna Beach in April after a private investment group led by Laguna Beach resident Mark Christy, Laguna Beach Golf & Bungalow Village, purchased the property last year), where a 1-acre plot of land is dedicated to growing fruits, vegetables and herbs. Food from the garden—or farm—will find its way onto guests’ plates sometime around September, a month after the property reopens following a 10-month renovation process.

The garden is just one part of a 2.5-acre revitalization project called Scout Camp. The land was previously a Girl Scouts’ camp—hence the name—and, in keeping with tradition, The Ranch at Laguna Beach plans to use the area as a place for visitors to educate themselves about gardening while having a good time.

“It’ll be very functional for the property,” says Jim Tolbert, director of sales and marketing at The Ranch at Laguna Beach. “We can also have it as a space adjacent to the event area that can be interactive. We’re thinking about doing gardening classes and things of that nature, so it will be a fully working, operating minifarm.”

Jim expects the garden to be an asset for guests looking for the ultimate in farm-to-table dining, as on-site crops will be served at the main restaurant, at the pool, at the bar, for room service, at Ben Brown’s 10th Hole eatery and for catering at banquet events. In addition, he believes having a garden will be a positive experience for Executive Chef Camron Woods, who will be able to grow exactly what he wants to produce unique dishes. Jim says that they plan on growing fruits like lemons, limes and oranges; vegetables such as heirloom tomatoes, peppers, fennel, sugar snap peas and beets; as well as herbs including sweet and Thai basil, Italian parsley, mint and thyme.

Jim adds, “We’d love to be as sustainable as possible. It’s something that’s become pervasive in the community and everyday life. If you can do it, why wouldn’t you?”

Whether it’s fruit, herbs, vegtables or peppers, it’s hard to argue with the idea that fresher is always better. And we hope this is a trend chefs will keep rooted here that will continue to grow. LBM

Garden to Table

Mint is a handy herb to have growing in the yard.
Mint is a handy herb to have growing in the yard.

Many people can’t afford multi-acre properties to start personal gardens overflowing with all of their favorite fruits, vegetables and herbs. Luckily, you don’t need a massive plot of land to enjoy fresh food. Instead, you need innovation and the desire to plant a few seeds. With these in place and a few tips from two of the area’s best chefs, even city slickers can feel like they’re on a farm.

A gardener since childhood, chef Craig Strong of Studio at Montage Laguna Beach is thoroughly versed in raising homegrown crops. “If you grow mint, don’t put it in the ground because it takes over and grows like crazy,” he says. “I have mine in a wooden barrel, and it’s more than enough for the restaurant.

“… Also, tomatoes, beans and corn are things that plant well together because tomatoes take nitrogen out of the soil and beans put it back in,” the chef adds. “If you plant those together, they work in a symbiotic relationship. For a nice hedging around your garden that keeps bugs off your plants, any alyssum attracts the bugs and you don’t have to use pesticides.”

Azmin Ghahreman of Sapphire Laguna, meanwhile, suggests repurposing plantings. “If you have extra herbs, never throw them away,” he advises. “Put them in your vinegar bottle because they enhance the flavor of your vinegar. Or chop them up, put the herbs in a couple of ice cube trays, put some water in and freeze them. When you need it, you can throw it in a soup.”

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