From Seed to Sauté Pan: Inside The Herbfarm’s Field of Greens

PHOTO BY RYAN BENOIT

Two weekends ago, we traded the cacti of California for the Douglas firs (and snappy wildflowers!) of the Pacific Northwest. This mini-vacation included an enlightening trek to The Herbfarm, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant and dining tour-de-force in Woodinville, Washington. We also visited its five-acre farm to see what was cropping up for dinner.

“The radishes are kind of fun; they’re looking really good,” head farmer Bill Vingelen said when we arrived at the farm, 30 minutes outside Seattle and about a mile down the road from the kitchen. “It’s one of the first roots to come up — it came up in 30 days. These French breakfast radishes are a beautiful little size, and taste nice and crunchy, and a little spicy.”

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On the right, the French breakfast radishes are plate-ready.

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Head farmer Bill Vingelen helms the restaurant’s five acres of farmland.

We shadowed Bill that morning as he harvested produce for that evening’s dinner. Then we headed over to the kitchen to chat with Chef Chris Weber to see how he planned to make this bounty sing.

The Herbfarm, the only five-diamond resto in the Northwest, is famed for its thematic nine-course dinners; there’s just one seating a night, and meals last about four and a half hours. But it could be said that the experience of eating a vividly imagined and deftly executed meal — with Puget Sound perch on salsify purée, or fir tree gelée with salted lavender shortbread, or fried lichen, for example — is one that lasts forever.

Similarly fearless, collaborative combinations can be found at the farm. Beneficial insects, companion plants and an industrious gang of chickens all work in tandem to produce spectacular crops.

Guided by the “pick list” written by the chefs, Bill harvested edibles for that night’s Spring Forager’s Dinner. (Mother’s Day was the next day, so lemon balm, crimson clover and kale flowers were also cut to make aromatic boutonnieres.)

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The Herbfarm also includes two suites where diners can overnight, with views of Mount Rainier.

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The pick list is written by the chefs the night before.

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Above, Ron Zimmerman, founding chef and owner of The Herbfarm, explains his vision for the current theme.

“Imagine if you came back to this area 200 years ago,” said Ron Zimmerman, a native Northwester who owns The Herbfarm with his wife, New York-born Carrie Van Dyck. “The [indigenous] Coast Salish peoples lived in cedar longhouses on the water’s edge. Most of the winter you would be subsisting on salmon that was dried in the fall; and pemmican, which is dried berries and fish oil; and, when tide goes out, clams. But when the plants start coming up in the spring, suddenly you have whole foods coming back to your neighborhood. So you go up to the estuaries, streams and rivers to pick salmonberry shoots, and to gather nettles and fiddlehead ferns. All these things [you would] take back and roast in a big feast.”

Tonight’s menu would include smoked slow-roasted Columbia River wild king salmon with onion spaetzle and kelp-oxalis sauce, a black angus duo with onion-caraway jus and glazed morels, and foraged native greens with three-hour farm yolk.

Back on the farm, Bill walked us over to the chicken coops, where hens of all stripes were strutting in and out of converted horse trailers.

“These are the happy ladies,” he said. “They’re all heritage breed foragers, so they can survive over the winter no problem.” The hens had just been moved from a winter pasture of rye and vetch that had been planted as soil builders. “The vetch will climb the rye with its tendrils,” he explained. “We always set aside enough land so the chickens can tunnel around and eat. They also love to scratch around and look for bugs. It really helps their eggs, which have a bright, bright yellow yolk.”

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The farm’s heritage chicken breeds include australorp and araucana.

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Their feed is 100 percent organic. The chickens get enclosed at night; the electrified fence was installed to deter coyotes.

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After the chickens knock down and fertilize their current space, they’ll get moved further down the field.

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The different breeds of hens lay different color eggs. The araucana lays the light blue “Easter eggs,” and the brown eggs are courtesy of the black australorp, known for its gentle personality (“even the roosters are really nice,” Bill said).

The farm’s diversity pre-empts many of the problems you’ll find on monoculture properties. Bees and ladybugs reign. Rye and vetch are companion crops for the blueberries, and raspberries are “nursed” by crimson clovers, which provide soil-building and protection from the wind and rain for the berries.

Other foods harvested throughout the year include (just to name a few) currants, yellow plums, carrots, hazelnuts, quince, cherries, basil, mint, fennel, potatoes, rosemary, lettuce, beets and strawberries, which are now ripe thanks to their growing under plastic cover. Rows of poplar trees shield the farm from the wind.

The most important thing Bill has learned as a farmer? “Don’t be afraid to take risks. Every site is different,” he said. “They say, ‘plant peas by Presidents Day,’ but I planted them three weeks earlier than that, and now we’re harvesting peas. We’re probably the only one in the valley that has them.”

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‘Autumn Bliss’ raspberries grow beside the crimson clovers, which are a soil builder.

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Kale flowers are also picked for the Mother’s Day boutonnieres.

As we waded further into to crops, C realized that maybe she wasn’t dressed 100 percent appropriately for a morning on the farm…

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C drops trou (skir?) in the rental car. What is it they say about “taking the girl outta New York…?”

The Herbfarm

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The farm is currently raising two spirited Gloucestershire Old Spots.

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Other fauna on the farm include the bees that produce The Herbfarm’s honey.

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Wild borage flourishes inside one of the hoophouses.

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These colorful tubers are from the Andes: the yellow ones are called Mashua and the red ones are Oca.

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These potatoes are a mix of Maris Piper, La Ratte and Ozette. The latter, which is native to the Olympic Peninsula, is a favorite of the chef’s to use in confits because it “soaks up the fat and has a lot of flavor — like walking into a room of potatoes.”

The Herbfarm snap peas

The snap peas are now seven feet tall and fantastically ready to eat.

don’t be afraid to take risks. Think outside of the box. Just because a book will say one thing. Every site is differnent  these peas. They say plant peas by presidents day but I plenated them three weeks earlier than that, and now we’re harvesting peas. Probably the only ones in the valley that have peas. That’s kind of the rule of thumb, but

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Picking grape leaves. Come summer, this meeting area will be entirely shaded by table grapes.

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The farm also grows the incomparable Pellegrini bean, named after the late culinary expert Angelo Pellegrini. During the 1950s, famed vintner Robert Mondavi gave ‘Pelle’ a handful of these family beans, which The Herbfarm eventually inherited.

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To deliver the harvest, farm staffer Alice takes the bike path that joins the farm to the restaurant.

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Before dinner and between courses, guests can tour the garden across from the restaurant, which is planted with poppies, tulips and herbs. They also get to meet The Herbfarm’s pet (i.e. not destined for the cutting board) potbellied pigs, Borage and Basil.

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As if chive couldn’t get more amazing, these are the flowers they produce.

For tonight’s dinner, Bill’s harvest will be complemented by foraged morels, wild onions, cattail shoots, Japanese knotweed and fiddlehead ferns gathered by a staff forager.

We asked Chef Chris Weber about the dish he was most excited to unveil. “The salmon dish — we worked on the preparation of it for quite a while,” he said. “We’re doing it with oxalis sauce, a seaweed and wild sorrel sauce. The flavor is really bright. There’s a fair amount of cream and butter in it, but it’s still really light and bright because of the acidity that’s in the sorrel.”

Dessert will include sweet woodruff macarons; we sampled some of the ganache, whose taste defies description. The closest we can get is to say it was simultaneously herbal and nutty and wildly aromatic.

“It’s a pretty shocking flavor — unlike anything else,” Chef Chris said. “When it’s fresh, it’s really unassuming. It doesn’t really have an aroma or anything, but when it’s dried, it changes completely. For the macarons, [sous chef] Jack [Gingrich] and I were talking about how it kind of reminds us of pistachio a little bit. Pistachio macarons are super classic  — so, why not make macarons with sweet woodruff?”

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Chatting with Chef Chris Weber inside The Herbfarm kitchen.

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How to describe the magical, storybook taste of sweet woodruff ganache? We like to think the forest goodies that lured Hansel and Gretel off their breadcrumb path tasted a little like this.

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The macarons in progress. Ron notes that the sweet woodruff plant “really loves the Northwest” but “it’s something you could grow at your own house, with partial shade — especially under trees as a ground cover. You could put in misters to give it more of its natural environment.”

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The glazed foraged morels get prepped for showtime.

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The inviting and eclectic dining room.

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Prepping the kale flowers.

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Foraged greens include cattail shoots, stinging nettle, fiddlehead fern, devil’s club buds and Japanese knotweed.

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Sautéing fiddlehead ferns.

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Other themes at the restaurant have included Taste of the Trees (drawing in ingredients like juniper, syrups and a pine bud elixir) and the 100-Mile Dinner, sourced strictly within 100 miles of the restaurant. Even the salt was made in-house.

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Chef Chris snips from the Szechuan peppercorn plant on the grounds.

The extraordinary wine cellar includes 26,000 bottles and 2,200 selections, including a vintage from 1795.

The extraordinary wine cellar includes 26,000 bottles and 2,200 selections, including a vintage from 1795.

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The cellar is also a “perfect place to cure meat,” Ron said.

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The celeb-friendly private dining room is tucked away on the second floor.

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The room also includes a library with over 1,000 cooking-related titles.

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Allium flowers, from the onion family.

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Trying not to get distracted by the beauty of these red poppies…

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But still falling under their spell.

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Basil gets ready for meal time.

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Borage also angles for position. They’re both training to be truffling pigs.

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Here, everyone eats well.