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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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09.10.07

The Garden that Bayless Built

Bites: News and Miscellany


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I broke Rick Bayless’s fish. While attending an organized summer tour of his Bucktown organic garden, I stepped on what appeared to be a sturdy rock next to a small, very picturesque pond, when I discovered it was not at all steady and the fish sculpture that had been so carefully placed at the other end of the rock toppled over and lost its tail. I sheepishly replaced the sculpture, balancing its broken tail in place, simultaneously backed away and prayed that no one else on the tour had noticed.

It must have been my awe that caused the swoon. It seemed hard to believe I was in the food mogul’s own backyard and that it was a mere 10-minute bike ride from my own humble abode.

Gathering my wits, I realized, despite the fact that it took up two adjacent city lots, the garden was smaller than I imagined. Bayless is one of Chicago’s biggest proponents of the local/organic food movement. In an effort to put his money where his mouth is, the restaurateur transformed his backyard into an organic farm capable of providing an average of 12 pounds of baby lettuces a week along with a gang-load of other interesting and edible foods that make their way to the plates of his patrons in the summer months. The garden is also a beautiful sanctuary from urban concrete, lights and noise. A large wooden deck complete with lounge chairs and umbrella-topped tables is just waiting for Bayless’s next backyard gala or TV show filming.

The first thing you see when entering the garden is Bayless’s modest, but awesome outdoor kitchen complete with a versatile gas/charcoal grill and a wood-burning terracotta oven. The real gem is hidden behind the kitchen in a dirty shady patch: a large metal plate concealing a hole in the ground perfect for a pig roast.

Touring the garden was lovely, but what could we really learn from Bayless that we could possibly hope to replicate? One tourist on our walk grumbled, “All this could be yours–with lots of money.”

I have to admit my own awareness of where my food comes from and what’s been done to it has increased ten-fold in the last year, but seeing such an array of fabulous produce grown in a backyard made me examine this idea even further and to be honest, had me conflicted. I want to eat food that’s been grown naturally, without chemicals and hormones, but frankly, I feel I can’t afford it.

Growing a garden like Bayless’s seems out of most people’s reach for lots of reasons, but the biggest is cash. I don’t have a lot of money, time and I’m pretty sure I’ve got a black thumb. Pulling aside Bayless’s main gardener’s assistant, Erin Ramsden, who also gardens for the Shedd Aquarium, I asked her how and why the everyday-person would grow his or her own food. Ramsden explained she couldn’t afford to always buy her own organic food either, but she found she was able to grow her own organic food for much less money.

Ramsden explains that you may have to initially spend a bit more money, but over time it’s much more affordable, not to mention convenient, to shop for produce in your own backyard. Growing your own food seems impossible to some, including me. I’ve killed cactus; I’m no green goddess to say the least, but Ramsden insists if you start with something simple that naturally yields big results like lettuces, you’re sure to be happily eating your efforts before too long.

My visit to Bayless’s garden inspired me to at least attempt to grow my own organic food and so far so good. I haven’t reached the point where I can harvest yet, but just the attempt, not to mention the excuse to spend some time outside getting dirty has been extremely rewarding. The more advanced gardeners on the tour discovered interesting new plants and got tips on harvesting times and composting.

The other main reason to visit Bayless’s garden, at least for me, was a bit less honorable. It’s hard during the tour not to constantly glance at the adjoining home and think, “Rick Bayless really lives here?” On my way out, I passed the glass door leading to Bayless’s kitchen spying the bottom corner of a stainless steel fridge and an immaculate white cat. I thought of looking up to see more of this chef’s private home, but hesitated. It seemed like an intrusion and was. Instead I took one final look at the green paradise behind me in the setting sun, let out a small sigh of envy and headed to the gardening store.

For more information on attending a Bayless garden tour or learning about urban gardening, check out this website Note: Hungry management apologizes and does not condone the destruction of any food star’s personal property by our writers. Though we wouldn’t be disappointed if some other publication’s writers found a way to blow up Sandra Lee’s Food Network kitchen.

One Comment on "The Garden that Bayless Built"

Anna Nymous

There are some big differences between an ordinary gardener and Rick Bayless’ setup. For one, Rick’s participation in his garden is that of landowner. That’s reason he has a gardener. They do the proper feeding and care of the plants. And the proper yearly crop rotation. Rick is just funding the operation and leveraging the results. Rick doesn’t deserve all the credit.

The rest of us can’t afford gardeners. That means we have to do all of the work ourselves. This does not mean you can just plant whatever you want every spring and watch it bloom. You have to understand what type of soil characteristics your plants desire. The proper time to pick them. And many other skills of a seasoned gardener.

The other thing that is important is proper crop rotation. You can’t continually grow the same produce in the same place every year. Particularly if you choose to go the natural/organic route. The pests will congregrate in droves and destroy your crops. You must understand what nutrients are taken by what plants and what nutrients are replenished. Gardening, like cooking, is a skill one must learn over time. I think the problem is that people expect too much too soon.



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