Brett Graham grows celeriac, japanese spinach and white icicle radishes. Photograph: Emli Bendixen for Observer Food MonthlySome chefs can’t wait to escape the restaurant so they can retreat into their backyard, their rooftop, even their front steps, and surround themselves with … food!
Head chef, the Ledbury, London. Grows in the garden of his home in East Sheen
I grew up in a very rural setting " outside Newcastle in Australia, next to a massive woodland, on a five-acre "farm" which wasn't a working farm. That's where my love of gardening started, but I was inspired by my grandfather who grew beans and beautifully smelling but over-watered Grosse Lisse tomatoes. I cultivated carnivorous plants like venus fly traps, and a few shrubs. The conditions were so dry and dusty I moved them into a greenhouse, which I got Dad to help me build when I was 12. Then I started on vegetables and lettuces. My interest was in nature and in learning " how to control and encourage growth.
Then my parents got divorced and my mother moved to an apartment in the centre of Newcastle and I moved in with her, so couldn't continue with my greenhouse, or chickens. There was a long gap before I returned to my first passion.
I'd moved from Australia to London in 2000 and during my third year of working at the Ledbury I was living in a flat in Maida Vale. It had a flat roof, so I decided to cover it in herbs planted in wine boxes and champagne buckets. I loved being up there at night. Then I moved into a house in East Sheen with my wife five years ago and in a couple of months turned a barren garden into a place to grow strawberries, jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, beans, fennel and types of radishes " cherry bell, scarlet, little white icicle ones. I soon realised how important positioning is in England, compared to Australia. Here you've got to work so much harder. But that's fine, mate. There's even more satisfaction, thinking: "I grew this, I looked after this, it's got no chemical in it and it's beautiful."
I started taking produce to work and did dishes with my own vegetables and herbs on taster menus. I don't tell customers I grow these things " unless they specifically ask " but get great satisfaction from it. I consider my gardening as down-time and a way to relax. I can switch off in the garden at night " I become calm just by spending 15 minutes watering or picking herbs after getting home at 1.30 or 2.00am.
Any half a day it's possible to have off work, I'm in the garden. We don't have children and my wife's only into flowers really, so I'm on my own, in silence. I put boxes on the shed roof because she didn't want me taking up any more space. I try to put things together that have a similar growing feel, like my wasabi and succulent wah suruna , which need damp, shade and warmth. My only frustration is when I don't have enough time and feel like I'm letting down my celeriac or whatever. So I'm usually up and in the garden at 6am, before heading to work for an 8am start, taking in sorrel fresh each morning, which is a huge benefit in the Ledbury kitchen. And things like my Japanese spinach work really well for us, because suppliers charge "£15 or "£16 a kilo and I'm providing 200 grams a day. But I could never produce enough food here for the Ledbury. I can do months of work growing some new potatoes " picking them, looking after them, sieving through all the dirt, potting and re-potting, and then 25 portions are sold on a lunch menu and they're all gone in two hours. It's more about the spirit, the belief in freshness " it's a revolution. It's about teaching the other chefs to source locally and think and feel a certain way, and about the huge rush you get from serving meals with one or two ingredients which you've cared for all the way from seed to table.
Head chef, Grain Store in King's Cross, and Grain Store Unleashed. Recently moved to Bedfordshire to build an edible country garden
Given we only moved here less than a year ago and I started this garden from scratch, what I've achieved is not that bad. I hired a machine to take out the grass and dig everything over, used a lot of farm manure, turned it many times in the winter, built the chicken and rabbit pens and then in spring started seeding things in boxes, so everything you see growing here's from seeds. I've worked really hard to make it happen, in between commuting by train to work 14-hour days in London.
It all goes back to growing up in rural France where " as a perk of being a railway station worker " Dad had an allotment a few minutes' walk away, which fed our family of 11. Having seven children, maybe it allowed him peace too, although I'd often turn up there. For me, gardening allows the mind to reset, makes me feel sane and human and gives me a connection to food and life.
Back in Dad's allotment we'd grow everything, including many fruits. I remember mates pestering me to go and play football or ride bicycles, saying, "Why do you want to be gardening, what's wrong with you?" and I'd reply, "Get off, it's what I do." I foraged all the time too " it's the way my family lived. Almost everything we ate was linked to its season and proximity.
Food had been scarce in the 40s, so my parents remained frugal and adaptable. Mum's eccentric father, who'd lost his leg after falling from a cherry tree while picking, ripped up the floorboards and planted pumpkins and butternut squash in the house, so no one could steal his food. And I remember in 1968 how my mother, expecting a revolution in France, got us to store food under the floorboards. At eight, Dad taught me how to kill a rabbit, gut, prepare and then cook it. At 11, I used to pick small leeks, no bigger than my finger now, and tie them in bundles then, on the way to school, sell them for two francs a bunch to a guy at the market who'd sell them on.
Dad always insisted Mum put a big bowl of mixed leaves on the table. I think if she didn't he would have divorced her. This is my first place in England where I can step from my kitchen and pick a whole range of food I'm growing myself. The only sounds are the birds, the chickens and the wind through the veg. Once my wife let the dog in and he rolled in my strawberries and flattened a bunch of courgettes. He knew what he'd done because when I got home he hid very quickly.
I'm already thinking about winter. Dad's dead but if he could see this now he'd probably say, "It's good, Bruno", then add: "I'm sure it will be better next year." My neighbour over the back fence has been growing for 20 years and can't believe what I've got already. Herbs, garlic, spring onions, shallots, [Basque] tear peas, baby leeks, fennel, purple heritage carrots, cabbages, runner beans, a range of beetroots, amaranth, Russian kale, American spaghetti squash, courgettes, artichokes, Japanese radishes. One of those leeks will make a winter soup and I've got 30 growing. Not much is ending up at [my restaurant] Grain Store, but, because there's enough for the family, I'll take in things for the chefs to test and courgettes for the Italian guys to barbecue for their girlfriends. When I have something really special " like my little radishes, so fresh and crunchy, the perfect radishes really " I'll give them to customers free, as a nibble bowl, and say: "That's from my back garden."
Founder of Wahaca and food writer. Gardens at home in Kensal Rise
The kids take part. To a child, digging up potatoes is like mining jewels from black earth. They've got their own little gardening kits and boxes " forks, watering can, garden bags to carry, the lot. They want to copy, so they're great at watering, digging, weeding and putting earth over after I seed. They'll take out bowls for raspberry and strawberry picking and, of course, they're brilliant at eating them.
I'd grown up eating vegetables from gardens " not at home but with grandparents. One set lived in Gloucestershire and that grandpa would endlessly get us to eat his beans, stewed gooseberries and rhubarb " he kind of forced it down our throats a bit. There were also grandparents in Wales that us kids got sent to whenever Mum and Dad went off on holiday alone. I did a lot of picking in Gran's small kitchen garden, which had loads of runner beans and globe artichokes. She'd also take us to pick-your-own farms and awarded tiny amounts of pocket money, on a points system, for gardening.
I'd never had a garden of my own until getting this house with my husband. We had a bit of tangle though. He said, "What if I have a son who wants to play football?" I'd wanted vegetables everywhere but ended up with raised beds on either side. And we kept some roses for the bees and jasmine and lavender for the smells. The garden's been going three years now and provides me with loads of ingredients. Shiso, mustard leaf, rocket, chillies, beans, sorrel... loads and loads of herbs. And, my God, the garlic. I've still got a large jar of garlic puree I boiled down from some wild garlic we dug up in June.
The most totally inspiring garden I ever saw was Diana Kennedy's. She lives in an eco ranch in the middle of a kind of jungle and met me at her gate with a glass of mescal.
The book I want to write next is about how I use my own garden, larder, fridge and freezer to feed my family, healthily but in no time. Old-fashioned garden and kitchen management for the modern age.
Head chef, Fera, London. Gardens in the walkway of his house in Camden
I remember a grandfather in Chichester who grew vegetables but he died when I was six or seven. I lived with my family in a house in Highbury. Mum was a high-flying solicitor and Dad did computer-auditing and they had no interest in the garden. Meals involved a lot of tinned and frozen stuff " it was very much a cupboard of convenience. But, fascinated by my grandmother's love of home cooking in Barry, I started cooking for my parents. At nine or 10 years old I was making a starter and main course each evening for when they got home. I'd serve them, then go to bed, to let them enjoy it. They didn't appreciate it to the extent they could have done, frankly. Mine wasn't the warmest upbringing. But after they got divorced I took on the renovation of the house and then built a conservatory on the back and filled it with a complete range of unusual and rare herbs.
When I began working with Simon Rogan at L'Enclume there was a local farm supplying it with produce who we pushed for more volume but [who] weren't very interested. So we started our own farm from scratch in six acres of empty field, in a beautiful landscape, down the road from the restaurant. We still call it "Our Farm' and it supplies all Simon's restaurants by refrigerated van.
I worked incredibly hard on the farm, starting early 2011, and in spring I was going back and forth to L'Enclume and standing at the bar and watching people serve food I'd seeded, grown, prepared in the kitchen and plated. Having control of your restaurant produce, that's the main thing. And growing varieties you can't necessarily get elsewhere.Returning to London to work at Fera was odd, in that there'd been far less bullshit in the countryside, more headspace, more of a natural life. I spent a lot of time finding this house, one of a price I could afford, near enough to work and with the right feeling. Because the tiny back garden gets little light I decided to make the front steps and what is technically the pavement into my growing area. After working closely with our suppliers during the day, I get to come home to a place beside the canal where I'm helping things grow throughout their cycles. It's difficult to water tomatoes when I'm doing 18-hour days, but it's got to be done and it's good to do it. The pavement lamp comes on as soon as it gets dark, and that helps me and the growth. I call it my concrete garden. It's my escape and it feeds me. There's incredible flavours here: dittander, meadowsweet, marigolds... The Mexican marigold, for instance, I bought in the seeds from south America, sowed, they grew a treat and we've used it in every restaurant since. Today's my day off and I've picked leeks and runner beans to cook tonight for me and my brother, and great cress. I do take a fair bit into Fera, but it's also about gathering specimens for when I have somewhere bigger to put them.
I'm aiming to have my own restaurant right in the middle of a farm " Devon/Cornwall, but certainly a place of outstanding natural beauty. So many restaurants have gardens but they're often dead and barren. What I want is a place working totally harmoniously. Restaurant, brewery, dairy and bakery, all in one, with me living there, working with incredible like-minded people and with a growing operation going on all round. The things closest to the building would be interesting herbs, flowers and things needing special care and attention; then in surrounding fields the large scale vegetables and orchards. I haven't got a name for it yet, but the vision's there and growing nicely.
Wai Ting Chung
Co-owner, Bao, London. Her roof terrace in Fitzrovia doubles as her garden
I was born in Nottinghamshire, where my family had moved from Hong Kong. They hadn't had a garden in Hong Kong because there's just no space there. For two years I lived above our takeaway restaurant The Golden Crown in Beeston. We also had The Oriental Pearl in West Bridgford and Opium, in a listed building with a grand staircase, in the centre of Nottingham. It was very traditional Cantonese food. So I grew up, from 14 at least, helping or working in restaurants.
The first garden we had, lawned and hedged, was behind our new-build house in Wilford, where my family dug out a patch and began growing Chinese vegetables like spinach and gai lan [broccoli]. For them it was never about aesthetics and they weren't particularly green-fingered. It was their way of supplementing produce for the restaurants. Personally I had no interest in it " I was into algebra and art, then fashion. My interest in gardening began, ironically, after moving to London, where there seemed so little space to do it.
An ex-boyfriend bought me a grow-bag " that was the start. I had a little back yard in Stoke Newington and was growing vegetables to cook.
Four months ago we opened Bao in Soho and it coincided with me getting this flat above The Newman Arms in Fitzrovia. The roof terrace gets sunlight all day. I share the flat and terrace with Matt, who part-owns the pub. We're growing quite a few things and have this wooden structure to allow drainage. This isn't about supplying Bao with ingredients, but about growing things for my own kitchen and The Newman Arms' restaurant.
I love it up here. It's relaxation, and to be surrounded by plants is very appealing, my sanctuary. After pub closing time, it's surprisingly quiet " apart from someone who sings on her balcony " and I sit up here at night, after work, on the AstroTurf, watering the kale, sorrel, basil, pea-shoots and tomato plants.
I'm not necessarily very good at gardening and it's hard work, but I really enjoy it. I'm encouraged by salad-grower Sean O'Neil of The Cornwall Project [which supplies Cornish produce to restaurants], who I've been down to see at Keveral Farm in St Martin by Looe. He's started producing Szechuan peppercorns, which are very difficult to grow in this country. Just the taste of the leaves is incredible and I'd love to get to grips with growing those next.