Think of the last time a restaurant dish set before you caused exclamation over its beauty. What made it so amazing? Was it the arrangement, the colors or the ingredients themselves? Culinary experts know that we eat first with our eyes, and the best chefs take pains to create attractive and stunning arrangements that invite us to leap into a meal. Of course, they use secret weapons that we don't have at home — like experience, skills and microgreens.
Along with edible flowers, these delicate bites give a touch of finesse to make a plate Instagram-worthy. But it's not easy being a microgreen, and getting the tiny foliage from the farm to your restaurant's kitchen takes more work than you might think.
Though best known for their lettuces, Mark and Mindy Robinson of Tega Hills Farm in Tega Cay, South Carolina, have created a specialty of both edible flowers and "micros." They all have their start in Greenhouse 2, a humid shelter of tough, clear plastic stretched over metal supports. Microgreens are sown by hand in shallow trays atop long tables equipped with heating elements. In one to two weeks, the tiny granules transform into delicate tasty shoots with tender leaves, growing in rectangular clusters of greens and purples. Mindy estimates she sells about 20 varieties, along with a handful of flowers like nasturtiums, johnny jump-ups and bachelor's buttons.
On a rainy Monday morning, she leads me past tray after verdant tray, pointing out which micros will be cut that day. Due to their fragility, harvesting happens twice a week, a day ahead of Tuesday and Friday deliveries to restaurants and retailers.
"I don't want my chefs to have to pick through our stuff," she says. Freshness is the key to her entire timetable, from planting to delivery.
Today, cilantro, basil, purple kohlrabi, radishes and red cabbage will all meet their maker, in the form of an ordinary pair of scissors. Halfway down the greenhouse, Casey Deneau stands at a table snipping pea sprouts a fraction of an inch above the soil. She piles them loosely in a small plastic bin that will be stored in a glass-fronted cooler until packaging time.
Just outside the greenhouse entrance, a small plain packing room boasts white walls, a couple of folding tables and an old order list written on paper towel and taped to the wall. Here, twice a week, microgreens are weighed down to the quarter ounce and flowers are counted by the piece. Their small zip-close bags and clear plastic clamshell containers receive labels and dates, then are bundled into white T-shirt bags according to each client's invoice.
Though the number of orders varies each week, a typical delivery day includes about 30 stops, from South End, through Uptown, past Central Avenue and Elizabeth Avenue, then out Providence Road past the 485 loop. Though the day starts at 8 a.m., it can take an hour to finish last-minute harvesting and pack the capped pickup with stacked boxes of lettuce and the carefully stored flowers and microgreens. With so many stops in a day, boxes are meticulously arranged in the order of drop-off for maximum efficiency.
The ideal day gets driver Logan Rohrbach through her Uptown deliveries before lunch hour traffic, though events like CIAA and NASCAR's Speed Street can seriously mess with her route — parking a Ram 1500 downtown is hard enough on a normal business day. Some stops are easy drop-and-gos, with chefs paying via invoice each month. A few, located inside those big bank towers, require Byzantine security checks, including mirrored inspections of the truck and the deposit of an ID before taking the produce for an elevator ride high above the street. And no matter the location, any lunchtime delivery may require Rohrbach to cool her heels for several minutes while waiting for a busy chef to sign the invoice.
In spite of the nine-hour nonstop days with the pressure of hitting all her stops before dinner service begins, Rohrbach enjoys the change of scenery from the rest of the week working on the farm. "I love interacting with the chefs, sous chefs, bartenders," she says. "They're all pretty cool, and they're happy to see me when I come in."
Of course they are. Because though you may never see her face in the dining room, Rohrbach is an important link in the chain connecting farms to tables all over the Queen City. A delivery truck may be less glamorous than a flaming saucepan, but it keeps us fed.