Chicago's Garden Girl
Fresh produce from rooftop to restaurant
When we first meet the Chicago restaurant scene’s resident “garden girl,” Sara Gasbarra, we’re hot on her heels, snaking our way through Floriole’s bustling kitchen. We lose her temporarily when a baker swings into our path, two cartons of uncovered eggs in her arms. It’s over-stimulating to say the least: The lightening-quick chopping, the trays of heavenly sweets hoisted from oven to table, the blur of kitchen staff caught in their day-to-day.
We follow Sara up a narrow staircase and when she pushes through the door at the top, the busy kitchen below seems a world away. Here, amidst the treetops, Sara has transformed the Lincoln Park restaurant’s small rooftop patio into a peaceful, green oasis—an herb and vegetable garden from which the chefs can pluck ingredients for the day.
Floriole’s garden is one of nine urban spaces Sara has been commissioned to plant and tend through her gardening company, Verdura. Across Chicago, Sara has hauled soil, seedlings, and irrigation systems to the tops of big name restaurants ranging from Nellcote and Farmhouse to Italian Village and The Savoy. She’s coaxed pounds of tomatoes from seedling to harvest, grown boxes of herbs, and given Chicago chefs the opportunity for hand-picking the freshest produce around.
We spent a summer morning atop this Lincoln Park bakery, standing by as Sara checked in on the garden for the day. As she planted and pruned, we got the scoop on Verdura, and how a life-changing decision lead its founder out of the cubicle and into the rooftop garden.
Q: Designing and managing gardens for Chicago’s restaurants sounds like a dream job. Where did the idea for Verdura come from?
Well, I had a great job in accounting at a university, but after five years, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel fulfilled. I’ve always been a creative person, so I quit. I just quit my job because I was really miserable. So, a week later, I had to start asking, what do I do now?
I made a list of everything I like to do. Everything involved food, restaurants, and gardening. I was always coming back to gardening.
“I love to see how chefs are using what I’m growing, because they’re using these ingredients in such a neat way.”
That’s when I started volunteering at Green City Market. They run, in partnership with Lincoln Park Zoo, a 5,000 square foot vegetable garden called The Edible Garden. It’s incredible. Eventually I was hired on and, within a year, became project manager. I never went to school for gardening, but I always had an interest. Working with Edible Garden and Green City Market, I was able to hone my skills and network with restaurants in the city.
Q: So, how did you land your first job?
When Sandra [Holl] opened Floriole, I already knew her as a market vendor. She’d been using a shared kitchen to bake and then sell at the market. She approached me and said they wanted to start a garden at the restaurant on this cool rooftop space. They didn’t have the time for it and they didn’t know how to do it. I said okay, but in my head I was thinking this could really not work!
But I didn’t tell her that! I knew what I was doing, but to take ownership of my own project like that was very scary at first. This is the third year Floriole has had this garden and it’s worked out great. They’ve been really happy.
Q: Once you were growing a garden atop Floriole, how did you get the keys to other restaurants’ growing spaces?
I was so excited about the garden at Floriole that I did a lot of social media. People started reaching out—chefs and restaurateurs—and they’re like we want something similar
. I think it’s hard for restaurants because they have a vision, but they’re busy and don’t have time to tend to them. That’s often why gardens fail, because people think you plant and let the garden take care of itself. But there’s so much that goes into it. So, I take the not so fun parts—the fertilizing, pruning, staking, and weeding—and I put in the hard work so that the restaurants can reap the benefits—the harvest.
Q: When you first sign a new restaurant on, what’s the process like to determine what the garden will look like?
I sit down with the chef and go over a crop list. It’s about three pages and lists everything we can grow in this area in ground and containers. I ask them to check off what they use in their kitchens. Each restaurant is really different depending on what they want to get out of the garden. For example, Farmhouse wanted to go with just a few things in mass amounts: 13 boxes of arugula, five boxes of herbs and peppers. Italian Village is focusing on tomatoes and herbs. At Acadia, we’re growing a lot of specialty plants—edible flowers, micro greens, chamomile, and more. It’s fun to have different types of projects both in terms of size and variety.
Once everything’s installed, I make a point to walk the garden with the chef. It’s a very aggressive form of gardening, so if a particular plant is not doing well, I’ll yank it and give the space to something else. In these small spaces, I try to pump out as much food as each garden can for these restaurants.
“When I sit down with restaurants to plan,
I always explain to them that there’s going
to be some failure. All you can do is take
notes and learn from it.”
Q: Do you have any advice for readers who are new to gardening?
Stick with basics (herbs, greens, tomatoes, and chili peppers are really easy to grow). Make a plan, figure out how much space you have and make a list. If you want to grow one experimental thing, that’s great, but just stick with one. If it fails, you still have everything else thriving. Gardening is a learning process. When I sit down with restaurants to plan, I always explain to them that there’s going to be some failure. All you can do is take notes and learn from it.
Q: We hate to admit it, but before we know it, gardening season will be through and winter will be on its way. What do you do with your plants when the growing season is over?
My advice: Do as much cleaning as you possibly can in the fall! Before it gets cold, pull all the leaves off your basil plants. Process them with olive oil and freeze them in an ice cube try. You can pop out the ice cubes and store them in the freezer. Rosemary I hang upside down to dry. Or, try bringing it inside and placing in a south-facing window. You may have luck growing it through winter. Thyme, sage, and mint will come back in the spring. Anything else, I cut at the base and hang upside down to dry. It is much easier to clean now than at the end of winter!
Q: Does gardening for Chicago’s chefs inspire you to be more adventurous in the kitchen?
Yes. I always find it interesting to see how they’re using certain ingredients and how they utilize every part of the plant. Even what
we’re growing: I feel like every year I garden, the crop list expands. I’m growing a lot more edible flowers this year, for example. I like that my chef clients push the boundaries. It makes this more fun and I tend to start experimenting in my own garden too.
Q: Floriole recently hosted a pizza dinner where the greens you grew on the rooftop featured prominently. What was that like?
It was so fun! It’s very rewarding to eat something I’ve been growing—it’s like the final piece of the puzzle. I’m always intrigued and get excited by the way chefs use the ingredients I grow. For example, I never considered eating arugula flowers. Normally, when I’m gardening, when greens go to flower, they’re done growing for the season. They’re bitter and something you don’t think of as edible. But to see restaurants use the flowers, I just think that’s so cool. I love to see how chefs are using what I’m growing, because they’re using these ingredients in such a neat way. It’s very exciting for me.
For the pizza dinner, Sandra told me ahead of time that they would be using the rooftop greens so, of course I had to go! I brought my friend Matt and we were being super ridiculous, taking photos for Instagram and Facebook. They sat us upstairs next to a window overlooking the garden, so we totally had VIP seating. It was really cute—and delicious!
If you’d like to learn more about Sara, Verdura, and the gardens she’s planting across the city, visit Verdura’s Facebook page. We’ll be back tomorrow with more from Sara and Floriole, stay tuned!