September 8, 2011 by Robin Plaskoff Horton
Food doesn’t get any fresher or local than this: Manhattan restaurant Bell, Book, and Candle’s Owner/Chef John Mooney and I were up on his restaurant’s rooftop hydroponic vertical farm when he plucked a small Sunburst tomato from the vine, added a fresh-picked basil leaf to it, and handed them to me to taste. This is what the restaurant’s 94 clients enjoy every night as most of the menu is created from what is freshly grown six floors above them. “I only use what I have,” said Chef John Mooney, who decides the day’s menu by climbing the stairs to see what’s fresh on the roof.
My culinary taste tour that day included flavor bursts from Whirleybird Nasturtium, a purple-tinged Calypso Cilantro, chives, Poblano Peppers, red okra, numerous varieties of lettuce, fennel, and loads of herbs including a mountainous tower of sage which Mooney uses in his fried chicken.
The farm utilizes 60 vertical hydroponic tower systems manufactured by Future Growing. The white, food-grade plastic towers are stacked upon 25-gallon reservoirs. To feed the plants, a rich nutrient solution is fed into the soil-less towers. The tower system requires less maintenance than a traditional soil system, and it is also lighter which was important because the farm sits on the roof of a 1929 building that would not have supported the weight of a soil system. Growing vertically allows Mooney and restaurant partner, Mick O’Sullivan, to maximize their available space producing upwards of 1000 plants at a time.
For ten out of twelve months a year, the farm produces more than 70 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. When temperatures drop below freezing, the farmers place a nutrient heater into each reservoir thereby creating a consistent 65 degree microclimate.
On the day of my visit, they were about to switch out the tomatoes for autumn plants like collard greens, winter and butternut squashes, and pumpkins. And although a hurricane was forecasted for the next day, Chef Mooney was not worried, telling me he wasn’t planning to do anything to protect the plants.
The farm uses some technology that sounds like it is straight out of Star Trek: a solar panel powers “The Dosatron” which injects nutrients into the New York City water that feeds the plants. On the low-tech side, Mooney uses a hand-rigged pulley system he created–basically a rope tied to a bucket– to hoist his crops directly from the roof down into the kitchen.
And there are no pesticides found on this farm. The crops growing there are protected by a beneficial insect pest control system. The bees were buzzing and ladybugs crawling when I was there. Up on a rooftop in Manhattan, a whole eco-system and enough food to feed 80.