A true kitchen garden supplies Ristorante Gilardi’s

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On the day he moved into his new home, James Martin began to dig up the front yard. Neighbors looked at him sideways, perhaps wondering if a madman had taken ownership of Ristorante Gilardi’s at 820 East Walnut St.
But Martin had big plans for this small plot of land, and the first thing that had to go was the grass. “The soil was dead,” says Martin. “There were no worms …” Martin’s idea was to create an organic, sustainable garden to supply his restaurant with fresh ingredients. Less than two years later, Martin’s plan is reality. But he’s just getting started.

Picture city neighborhoods where front yard gardens outnumber manicured lawns. Martin wants to change people’s behavior of putting down pesticides, watering and cutting grass and using gasoline while wasting natural resources like compost, rain water and the power of the sun. Imagine neighbors collectively tending a thousand acres to produce food for themselves and others locally, keeping money in the Ozarks economy and creating jobs. If you think your yard is too small to feed your family and this dream is too big, think again.

Intensive urban agriculture works the soil hard to produce as much food as possible in limited spaces. “Eventually every square foot of this property will grow food,” says Martin, who can be seen in the garden every day.
“You’d be amazed when you’re working out here, how many times people will stop and then we talk and I take them on a tour.” He likes to showcase that you can plant a lot of food in a very small area. In strawberries alone, Martin will harvest about 200 pounds this year. Many passersby can’t even identify a strawberry plant. Talking to people gives Martin a chance to educate and hopefully inspire them to plant their own strawberries.

Martin is serious about sustainability. Drip irrigation hoses that directly feed the roots snake along the mulch and soil. Rain is collected from the roof of the adjoining Grey Gables historical home. Water passes through filters, removing asphalt and other contaminants along the way, and collects in barrels. Martin says he preserves 1800 gallons of rain on the property. Gilardi’s received assistance from the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, which partially funded the project, to install the rain water harvesting system.

Solar panels will be installed soon on the restaurant to control the irrigation hoses with timers. He’s excited about a solar panel/water heater in his future. “I go through so much hot water for the restaurant,” says Martin. “We would really be able to cut our utility costs.” Martin recently purchased a 50-gallon composter that requires one turn a day, and composts in a matter of weeks rather than months. “If I like it, I’ll buy eight more,” says Martin.
Looking beyond his property, Martin wants to build six greenhouses in a three-mile radius of Gilardi’s. Food grown in these large, fully sustainable structures will be sourced back to the restaurant. Martin hopes school field trips to the greenhouses will create new generations of urban farmers. Then, without missing a beat, Martin says he’ll follow that up with opening a cannery. “One hundred years ago the Ozarks was the bread basket of the nation. We had over 100 canneries in this area, and they’re all gone.” At 37 years old, Martin longs for the days he’s too young to remember – when the act of getting together to can food created communities.

Understanding nutrition is a natural extension of growing your own food, says Martin. He can tell you about spinach and how much vitamin C is lost in shipping long distances. Instead of going to the grocery store, Martin suggests a trip to the farmers’ market. “We might pay a little bit more,” says Martin, “but this is the thing about Americans. We’ve become addicted to the supermarket philosophy.” And we’re addicted to our specialty coffee. “We’re willing to pay five dollars for a caffe latte from Starbucks but we’re not willing to pay five dollars for 12 eggs. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Planning for the concept of a farm-to-table restaurant started a decade ago for Martin. “If I had done it 10 years ago, I don’t know if it would have been as successful as it now. The timing worked out really well.” Martin’s been in the restaurant business for 20 years and has always been interested in healthy food. As a child he cooked in the kitchen with his grandmother and worked the garden. “I remember standing on a stool in front of the stove and stirring stuff and I’m sure I was messing stuff up, but she didn’t care.”

In his early 20s, Martin worked at Gilardi’s for the original owner, Nicola Gilardi. When Gilardi was ready to sell the Walnut location, he offered it to Martin. Securing a U.S. Small Business Administration loan took multiple tries because restaurant loans are thought to be high risk. With funding finally in place, Martin took over the restaurant on February 13, 2013. “He (Gilardi) offered to sell this to me and to continue the legacy,” says Martin. His former boss typically put in long hours to make the restaurant successful. “He didn’t want to sell it off and watch it fail,” says Martin. “His name is on the door. I try to live up to that.”

The first year wasn’t easy. Martin jokes that he was an outdoors person until he bought the restaurant. In the first six-to eight weeks, Martin dropped about 25 pounds from all the running and stress. “I literally watched my hair every morning go gray.” The restaurant business is unforgiving. Very low profit margins and demands can drain a person mentally, physically and spiritually. Because Martin is working toward a higher goal he can get up in the morning and say, “All right, let’s do it again.” Martin hopes that diners will leave Gilardi’s with more than a great meal and a glass of wine. He wants them to have a total experience that includes education and the knowledge that they’re part of something big.

Achieving big goals begins in the garden. Sunflowers tower over the other plants in the front yard of Ristorante Gilardi’s. Every year Martin takes the seeds from the tallest one and puts them in the soil for next season. “Besides changing the world, one of my dreams is to grow the tallest sunflowers,” says Martin. More importantly, he’s planting the idea for a different urban landscape, an idea that has already spread to his neighbors. And it all started with a single seed on a small plot of land on East Walnut Street.

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