Cooking From the Garden with Kevin West

Kevin West photographs the terraced Vegetable Gardens at Monticello

Meet Kevin West. From cookbook author to food consultant, travel writer to avid grower and gardener, West has recently turned his attention to a new writing project scheduled for release next year. Cooking From the Garden will be a practical guide to growing what you eat. At a time when Americans are reconnecting to home on so many levels, West joined us at Monticello to talk about food, farming and his new endeavor.

It’s great to see you again! Tell us what you’re up to these days.

Great to see you, too, and it’s always such an inspiration to reconnect with Monticello and Tufton Farm. This summer in the Berkshires has been dry, dry, dry, so a lot of what I’m up to these days is trying to get enough water on my garden. But more generally I’m doing what every gardener does this time of year: watching with wonder as the plants grow and giving thanks every day for the pleasure and privilege of cooking from my own garden. Early August in the Berkshires is when things really start to come in: zucchini, cherry tomatoes, new potatoes, garlic, and more cucumbers this year than you can shake a stick at. If you come to my house, you had better lock your car doors, or else on your drive home you might notice a sack of cucumbers in your back seat. Also this year, apart from the usual summer hustle, I’m shooting the photos for my book as well as developing a slate of new recipes. And trying to find a little time to write…

Snapshots from West’s garden in the Berkshires

The first new potatoes of the year (variety Rose Gold) with the last of the peas (Laxton’s Progress #9)!
Cucumbers (variety Experimental 7082 from Row 7 seed company) against a backdrop of Happy Rich cutting broccoli, let go to bloom for the pollinators’ benefit.

The book (or should we call it a handbook) feels like the perfect manual for these complicated times. To use an agricultural turn of phrase – has the idea of writing about eating what you grow been germinating for a long time, or did it come to you because of the changes we’ve experienced since COVID brought us all back home?

I moved to the Berkshires from Los Angeles because I wanted a little piece of land to put out a proper garden and plant fruit trees. Actually, I’d say I *needed* to plant a garden. People revert to type and I come from a farming family. I think I just got to an age where it mattered to me more than just about anything to be able to grow some food and cook from my own garden. In that sense, the book I’m working on has been a long-time germinating. But in a more immediate sense, the amazing opportunity to work again with Knopf, publisher of Saving the Season, arose unexpectedly in mid-April when my editor asked me if I’d have any interest in submitting a proposal for how to grow vegetables at home and cook with home-grown produce. Any interest? There’s nothing that interests me more. I was off to the races.

If COVID-19 has refocused us to grow our own garden-to-table produce, what do you see for the future of cooking from home? Is the shift permanent?

It’s hard to predict, and I don’t claim to be a far-sighted prognosticator. What I do know is that for months now, we’ve all been in a position of needing to cook at home a lot — probably more than most people are accustomed to. That’s certainly been true for me. Since March 1, I’ve had exactly two restaurant meals—both take-out. Twice in five months! I used to eat out twice a week. Obviously that’s a gap I’ve had to fill by cooking at home, like everybody else. Restaurants have been devastated by the lockdown, and there will be a long-term fallout. Listening to friends in the restaurant industry, I know how hard their businesses have been hit. Many restaurants won’t reopen. In the months ahead, none of us will be able to go out to eat as readily or as easily as we’ve been accustomed to doing. I think that means more and more home cooking ahead, at least until a vaccine is developed and the restaurant industry rebounds. I hope that one silver lining from this dire situation is that more people will establish a direct connection to their food supply by growing a garden at home and buying directly from farmers via a CSA, farm stand, or farmers market.

You’ve shared that you’re traveling across the country visiting a curated selection of farms and gardens and dialoguing with those who tend to these lands. We’re delighted that Monticello’s Vegetable Garden and Tufton Farm made your list! What resonates with you about your experiences here at Monticello?

Oh wow — there’s so much, I hardly know where to begin. Let me first just say that I understand the Jeffersonian legacy, which has bequeathed so much to the American table and been such a personal inspiration for me, to encompass not just Jefferson’s ideas but also the skill, experience, insight, and labor of the enslaved African-Americans who carried out his schemes, including head gardener Wormley Hughes and many others whose names haven’t come down to us.

As for what most inspires me about Monticello, I’d start with the idea of experimentation. Peter Hatch [Monticello’s Emeritus Director of Gardens and Grounds] called Jefferson a revolutionary gardener, and part of what I understand that to mean is that Jefferson was essentially scientific — he tried new ideas, saw what worked, and adapted innovations that proved useful. He experimented because he wanted a better outcome in the garden — healthier plants, higher production, better tasting food. I try to do the same, whether that means planting 3 types of cucumbers and 8 varieties of potatoes to determine which grows best in my soil, or trying different cultivation practices such as tilling vs. no-till. There is no end to learning in the garden, as Jefferson noted in his famous line, “Tho’ an old man, I am but a young gardener,” written to Charles Wilson Peale in August 1811 at the height of Monticello’s growing season.

West talks garden shop with Monticello’s Manager of Farm and Nursery Operations, Keith Nevison; Curator of Plants, Peggy Cornett; and Vegetable Gardener, Pat Brodowski

The second thing that is made so clear to me when I visit Monticello is the direct link between the garden and the table. At Monticello, that fact is underscored by the garden’s physical proximity to the house. Also we know from his writings that Jefferson loved good food, and his garden records show that he grew what he liked to eat. The purpose of his garden was to improve the quality of his table. Could there a more apt demonstration of Wendell Berry’s reminder that “eating is an agricultural act”?

For the novice who doesn’t really know where to start, what tips can you share to make the shift to home gardening less intimidating?

The first and most important thing: grow what you want to eat! If you don’t like spinach or broccoli, then for heaven’s sake plant something you love, like okra and collards. I always put out chervil and those funny-looking little West Indian gherkins—seeds I got from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants—because I love eating them and therefore I enjoy growing them.  It sounds so obvious, but for a garden to thrive, it needs care. And how can you love a vegetable you hate to eat? Part of cooking from the garden is learning to see the garden through a cook’s eyes.

My second tip: start small! If you have a backyard (or a front yard), a 4’ by 8’ raised bed or a 10’ x 10’ plot of ground is plenty for a first garden. That will give you room for herbs, some lettuce or arugula, a short row of chard or kale, a cherry tomato or two, and a zucchini or other summer squash. If you don’t have that much space, start with a few containers, like maybe some five-gallon buckets lined up in a sunny spot, each one planted with a tomato, a hot or sweet pepper, a cucumber, and herbs. Or forget the vegetables altogether and just grow herbs! A window-box planted with one basil, one parsley, and one thyme will reward you all summer long with pinches of flavor, enhancing your favorite dishes and supplementing your regular groceries. That, too, is cooking from the garden.