Like kids in a candy shop, chefs Andrew Bent and Peter Hoff gleefully swipe and bite fruits and vegetables while touring Alegr & iacute;a Fresh on a recent Wednesday morning. A scarlet red- and yellow-hued heirloom tomato plucked from the Irvine farm is so ripe, its juices burst after one chomp. The chefs for Tender Greens are amazed at the water content in the fruit & ndash; grown using 75 percent less water than conventional row farming. & ldquo;They use less water, and the tomato is still dripping down your elbow like a peach,” said Hoff, executive chef at the Tender Greens near UC Irvine. Earlier this year, California banned all restaurants from serving water unless requested as the state enters its fourth year of extreme drought conditions. Though key water restrictions are aimed mostly at residential users, some Orange County restaurants are taking their own drought-busting steps. From fast food to fine dining, establishments are sourcing from hydroponic farms, slashing & ldquo;water hogging” foods from menus and rigging kitchens with water-saving contraptions. Each of Tender Greens & rsquo; two Irvine restaurants receives 100 to 125 pounds of produce three times a week from Alegr & iacute;a, which grows 80 different fruits and vegetables using water-efficient farming methods. Striking such partnerships is part of the 9-year-old chain & rsquo;s planet-friendly ethos. & ldquo;We’ve been studying this long before the drought was a headline,& rdquo; Tender Greens co-founder Erik Oberholtzer said. “As we address issues of long-term drought conditions, hydroponics and indoor growing systems start to make more sense.” Farming for the future While shopping last year at the farmers market at the Great Park, Bent, executive chef at the Irvine Spectrum Tender Greens, noticed a tiny little farm in the distance. Bent, who formerly worked at Alice Waters’ pioneering slow-food cafe Chez Panisse in Berkeley, wandered over and met a jovial farmer, Erik Cutter. Cutter’s 1-acre farm, to Bent’s amazement, was growing dozens of different fruits and vegetables on concrete. “Stumbling upon (Alegr & iacute;a) was a happy accident,” said Bent. “It changed my life.” Cutter’s operation hit Tender Greens’ wheelhouse. Founded in Culver City in 2006, Tender Greens is a counter-service chain that embraces the “slow food” movement. Every operational move is aimed at reducing the restaurant’s carbon footprint. Wine, beer and house-made sodas are served from a draft system. No bottles. Each restaurant, including the two in Orange County, offers a menu that rivals haute gastropubs – minus the premium price tag. Sandwiches, salads and protein dishes cost $11.50 and contain a bounty of fresh produce – all delivered from local farms within 24 hours of being picked. In recent years, Tender Greens’ conservation efforts have centered on working with innovative growing systems that require less water. At its Hollywood restaurant, 24 vertical aeroponic towers ring the patio dining area. The soil-less planters overflow with everything from rainbow chard to arugula, all grown using 95 percent less water. At the two Tender Greens restaurants in Irvine, a partnership with Alegría launched within a couple of weeks of Bent’s visit. Cutter, whose 3-year old Great Park farm is 2 miles from the Spectrum, often handles each delivery. “Basically, what we are pulling (from the ground) is in the restaurant within an hour,” he said. Tender Greens’ Oberholtzer said sourcing from hydroponic farms costs the company about 10 percent more than if it got its food from other suppliers. But such practices are vital to the food chain, he said. “We really believe this is the direction the world will have to go into as we start to lose our farmland,” he said. “This upfront investment will pay dividends in the future.” Growing food on concrete Rising food prices, combined with extreme weather conditions, have created a demand for hydroponic farming. From 2010 to 2015, the market has grown 3.3 percent to $555 million and accounted for some 1,500 businesses in the U.S., according to a January report by IBISWorld. In Orange County, two Irvine farms are taking advantage of the demand. At Alegría, Cutter grows everything from curly kale to spicy peppers using vertical hydroponic towers or a nutrient-dense GardenSoxx system. The latter looks like traditional farming, but instead of growing food in-ground, Cutter is stuffing organically grown nutrient-rich soil (he makes his own blend) into a mesh-like material made of polypropylene. The tubular-looking Soxx, which is recyclable, can be set up on cement or other manmade surfaces. Cutter also grows peppers, herbs and strawberries from vertical hydroponic towers that use 100 percent certified organic “coir” – a coco fiber – instead of soil. The advantage of both growth media? Each absorbs and holds water longer than conventional in-ground farming. As a result, Alegría’s drip-irrigation system uses 75 percent to 90 percent less water. Locals chefs have started to take notice. “It was amazing what they had growing on that acre,” said Cathy Pavlos, chef-owner of Lucca in Irvine and Provenance in Newport Beach. Pavlos began working with Alegría this year. Besides Tender Greens in Irvine, Alegría also works with Bluewater Grill in Tustin, Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Coast, Ky’a Bistro and Big Fish Tavern, both in Laguna Beach, and several Orange County juice bars. “Not only does he save water, but (his produce) just tastes better,” said Jim Ulcickas, owner of Bluewater Grill. Ulcickas said his restaurants in Tustin, Newport Beach and Redondo Beach use Alegría’s tomatoes exclusively on sandwiches and salads when in season. The farm also provides herbs and strawberries to Bluewater Grill. Tender Greens chefs Hoff and Bent say they visit Alegría every few weeks for inspiration. As for that juicy tomato? The chefs created a gazpacho soup special. “There’s nothing like having your own farm and picking your own food,” Bent said.

Reference Url