Author Laura Putre Illustration Graham Roumieu
One golden morning on his sprawling family farm in Huron, Ohio, Lee Jones—dressed in bib overalls and a bright red bow tie—is bantering about one of his favorite clients, Chicago-based celebrity chef Charlie Trotter. “Charlie called us and said, ‘I am so over-mescluned. Everybody in the world is doing mesclun now. I want something new. I want something so sexy it’s going to blow everybody away,’” Jones says.
Jones’ specialty is growing sexy stuff. His family’s farm, the 225-acre Chef’s Garden, is where master chefs go for rare or specially bred produce—like feathery chives with purple seed pods clinging to them like raindrops, or pink asparagus as slender as a blade of grass.
The Jones family ran a conventional farm until the 1980s, when rising interest rates and a devastating hailstorm forced them to scrap their old business plan and reinvent themselves. They established a complex of research greenhouses to experiment with heirloom seeds and pitched their unconventional produce to anyone who would listen. Soon enough, they were getting calls from the likes of Trotter and Alain Ducasse, both of whom requested charentais—an extra-sweet French melon—in the same year. To successfully grow the fruit, Jones’ harvesters had to remove all but one blossom on each plant by hand, so each melon would capture the entire plant’s sugar. It was worth the effort: The farm charged $65 a melon.
These days, Chef’s Garden grows 600 varieties of herbs, edible flowers and other strange and beautiful items, and Jones has lost none of his enthusiasm for the business. “We do a cucumber that’s the size of a No. 2 pencil, with a blossom on it the size of a quarter,” he says. “Imagine a cucumber sorbet finished with a tiny cucumber and a yellow blossom on the end. How sexy is that?”