A Q&A with Milton Cuisine’s Peter Kohm and Derek Dollar

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During my book research, I spent time with Peter Kohm, a master gardener at Milton’s Cuisine, and Derek Dollar, head chef at the restaurant. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

What is the process for determining what goes into the garden and onto the menu?

PETER KOHM: Derek [Dollar] goes over at least 30 seed catalogues in December, and we’re like kids in the candy store trying to decide what we want to grow. The garden structures Derek’s menu somewhat, down to the granularity. He can say, ‘Peter, I want to grow zucchini for a wedding in June — he can plan that far ahead, or, I want to have red leaf romaine this week on the menu, and we can make that happen.

DEREK DOLLAR: Every year, we try to tighten up and get better. There’s always something we can do better. For me, it’s, ‘What more can I put on the menu?’ We do menu changes twice a year, they’re not huge changes but it’s about 50 percent every time. We do what we can to make sure all of [the garden] gets used, so that’s part of it also. The collaboration between Peter and I is hand-in-hand. We start in January-February and Peter starts turning the land in February, and we sort the seeds while it’s still cold outside.

KOHM: We picked this squash out of a catalogue in December. It’s unique; you probably won’t find it on any menu here in the South. We’ve never grown it, but it looks unique, and we’re going to give our customers a very different version of yellow squash.

In this garden alone, at any given time, you’ll see close to 2,000 tomato plants and you’ll see 15-20 varieties within that. Really esoteric things.

We grow everything in an organic practice: nothing comes in the garden and nothing leaves the garden other than vegetables.

We’re not certified organic, but we grow under the organic philosophy. We don’t bring in manure, we don’t bring in any other additives from external sources that we don’t know where it came from.

Do you guys use compost from the restaurant?

DOLLAR: I’m kind of afraid to use compost, because saving the egg shells and things like that… it’s been thought of before, but there’s a lot of things the health inspector might not like about keeping food not refrigerated for a few days and then bringing it outside. So that worries me.

KOHM: That’s true. We also don’t have a great deal of space to make a compost heap, and we do a fair bit of entertaining out here. We have formal events and weddings out here, so we can’t have the smell as well as rats, mice and snakes around – and that’s just part of a compost pile.

DOLLAR: We also see this as a bit of a community garden, too. We’ll bring kids from Crabapple Elementary over here. Chris Lagerbloom, the city manager of Milton, brought Boy Scouts down here — so it’s community-oriented in that respect.

KOHM: We usually get around 250 fourth- and fifth-graders around here every spring around Earth Day to plant things and learn about the garden.

DOLLAR: A lot of customers come down and they appreciate the garden. They’re here for dinner watching it grow 100 yards from the restaurant. And the garden dinners we do, you’re literally sitting next to what you’re eating.

What do you do with any extra food from the garden?

DOLLAR: We encourage our staffers to take home any extras for a few reasons. First, if they taste it themselves, they’ll know the product, they’ll be more excited about it and pass that on to the guests. They’ll be better able to explain the differences in the taste, how it’s grown organically and why it’s better for you, things like that.

We also do some stuff with food banks. If food is about to go, we’ll try to get it to the right people, so it doesn’t go in the trash. We also try to sell large quantities, like 50 pounds, to a local purveyor such as Local Vendors Coalition.

KOHM: We also do farmers markets from time to time, like Sweet Apple Market or Riverside Market in Roswell.

How did the garden come to be a part of Milton’s?

KOHM: It evolved slowly. This is actually a separate property from Milton’s. We lease it, and the landowner agreed to let, basically, use the back acre. So we’re stewards of it, if you will. We’ve slowly tamed it over the last three years.

DOLLAR: It used to all be trees and tall grass. Now there’s just one left, in the middle.

KOHM: Sometimes it feels too small; sometimes it feels too big. Right now, we need more space to grow.

There’s a saying that all chefs are closet farmers, when did you realize that was true for you?

DOLLAR: I realized it when I got here and talked to Peter. He’s very knowledgeable about the scientific aspects and understanding how things work and how pollination works and why plants do things that they do.

KOHM: I like cooking a little bit and I’m learning how to use more vegetables in my personal diet. Learning something new every day.

What challenges does the farm-to-table face moving forward?

KOHM: I think it’s very difficult. If I were an independent farmer, I wouldn’t know what to grow unless I went to [Dollar] ahead of time and asked, “What can I grow for you under contract?” And then Derek, or other chefs like him, would say I want this, that, I’ll take all your green beans, all your squash, whatever. That would be my business plan to justify the seed to table expense.

This garden here costs around $20,000 per year to run. A 1-acre garden. It’s a very intensely labored garden, about 60 man hours per week out here. On a business model, is it justified? Probably not. It’s probably a break-even scenario – at best. However, the fact that Milton’s Cuisine and this garden are related, allows them to benefit in ways that don’t commute to the bottom line. But customers love it and word of mouth spreads.

DOLLAR: We’ve had several discussions over the four years I’ve been here about how we quantify the garden. My bosses want to know how this is making us money. But you can’t quantify it. The press alone, you can’t get that anywhere else. If we had to pay someone to do this, it wouldn’t be a win-win situation.

It’s priceless to us and to the people who come here, because there isn’t anything else like this.

KOHM: Once you come here and you get this whole thing, fresh, local organic and you taste it, you’ll be coming back and you’ll tell three people about it. That’s sort of the romantic part of the garden to us. It’s got its own organic growth – word of mouth. We could probably do press releases and send people like you all kinds of information about it, but the garden is gaining traction on its own.

On Sunday, we’ll have close to 100 people out here sitting in the garden in 92 degrees having dinner. And they’ll spend $125 a person for it.

DOLLAR AND KOHM: And they’ll love it (laughter).

KOHM: We really enjoy that, and that’s what keeps us reinvesting in it. We take a lot of effort to make it a meticulously pleasurable experience as well as a functional one. It’s a 12-month garden. We have a schedule through December. As soon as something’s pulled out, there’s something scheduled to go back in. Whatever can handle the colder weather. Every single part of this garden will be planted for 12 months per year.

What five items would you grow, regardless of time or temperature?

DOLLAR: I’ve talked to Peter about growing berries. It’s hard because it takes so long. We’ve talked about grapes because we are a wine-heavy restaurant. Blackberries, huckleberries, things that are a bit more Southern. Citrus trees – I would love to have a lemon and orange trees.

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