Chef Gardens: Centrolina and DC UrbanGreens

Centrolina photo by Greg Powers.
By Ana Hurler
Centrolina’s unique partnership with DC UrbanGreens not only supplies produce for the restaurant, but also helps the nonprofit satisfy its mission of providing fresh food for the community.


DC UrbanGreens has two urban farms, one in Ward 7 and another in Ward 8, which use underutilized space to grow produce for the surrounding community and help alleviate food insecurity. The organization aims to increase awareness and education to residents.


“The passion is really driven by youth and making sure that – in just a holistic way – they’re being nourished,” said community outreach director Annie Li. “We all strongly believe that feeding yourself well leads to a healthy mind.”


A couple of friends founded the nonprofit in 2013, and it has continued to expand and involve more of the community. It receives most of its funding from grants, which allows the organization to hire local residents and distribute produce.


“There’s kind of two sides to the organization,” Li said. “There’s growing the food, and every day that can lead to different challenges, and then there’s also getting the food out to the people, which can also be very challenging.”


The food they grow is based on what the community wants, which helps them have more significant engagement in the area, Li added. Centrolina is the only restaurant, and for-profit organization, they sell to.


“Chef Amy at Centrolina is our only for-profit organization we partner with, which is special for us and just a really cool thing we get to do,” said program director Avery Snipes. “It was never part of the vision.”


After initially connecting last September, DC UrbanGreens and Amy Brandwein, the owner and chef of Centrolina, established a partnership consisting of weekly produce drop offs.


“I was thrilled because I felt like it was really important to support our local economy,” said Brandwein. “I was really, really, really excited to be able to have a partnership with the farming community and residents of Washington, DC.”


Brandwein added that she thinks organizations such as DC UrbanGreens are the future of growing fresh food in urban areas, and not only providing it to residents, but also getting them involved in the process.


“I think what they’re doing in terms of using land that wasn’t used before, converting it, and growing things, that not only serves the community in terms of giving them access to local produce, but also helps improve the overall well-being of communities,” Brandwein said. “And it puts people to work in our city. I like the fact that my dollars go to residents of Washington.”


At Centrolina, patrons will find an Italian market with a bakery, pastry shop, barista bar, wine shop, and an Italian Osteria, in addition to the restaurant. All of the produce is bought from local farms, and everything the chefs get is made available to shoppers as well, said Brandwein.


“Essentially the idea is that I wanted to buy the best products, not only for myself for the restaurant, but also make them what I would buy and make them available for consumers,” she said.


DC UrbanGreens drops off about 50 pounds of produce per week, depending on the climate and time of year. Right now, it consists of chard, arugula, turnips, lettuce, and tomatoes. This amount of produce only supplements the restaurant’s total needs, and Snipes said Brandwein lets them be creative with what they grow and send over.


“We grow our food based on kind of a cultural demand,” Snipes said. “For the market, if you put a funky looking anything out there no one’s going to buy it, but with chef Amy she’s like the weirder, the uglier, the better.”


“It’s rare to find partnerships that are so flexible and understanding,” Li added.


To maintain this flexibility, Brandwein said she does not really plan anything in advance when creating dishes.


“It really just depends on what’s going on that day, but certainly what they have available is what I’ll put in the dishes,” she said.


Through this partnership, DC UrbanGreens has been able to expand the scope of their mission and continue to grow. There are still occasional setbacks, such as the lack of funding for a fence to keep deer out, but Snipes said they are humbled to have had such a great year already. Regardless, she maintains that serving their neighbors’ need for food will always be the top priority.


“We’re also really grateful because even though that’s a revenue generator for us, she’s still meeting our mission,” Snipes said. “She loves the local movement, she loves what we’re doing on our farm, and so she’s really involved in the mission of this.”


Brandwein acknowledged the importance of farming locally, and said that she hopes to continue to spread the word about possibilities like her partnership with DC UrbanGreens to improve the overall community.


“I just think that as a chef, as a business owner in Washington, as somebody who likes helping people who are in need, this is one of the most important things I can do in terms of how I direct my spending, how I can tell the story, and influence by exposing customers to the fact that we have a farm in DC that’s only 5 miles away,” Brandwein said.


Chef Amy Brandwein graciously shared her recipe for Ricotta Gnocchi with Swiss Chard, Brown Butter and Hazelnuts.


For the Gnocchi:
3.5 cups Ricotta
2 whole eggs
2 egg whites
1 cup pasta flour
1 cup Swiss chard
1 pinch fresh grated nutmeg


In boiling salted water, cook the Swiss chard and place in ice water. Drain the water immediately and dry well. Chop into very small pieces.


Mix all the ingredients by hand, in a mixing bowl. Roll into 1 inch balls and place dough on a sheet pan covered with parchment paper and a bit of flour.


For the sauce:
8 tablespoons butter
4 sage leaves
¼ cup parmesan cheese


Heat a pot of water to boiling and add salt. In a sauté pan over low heat, warm butter and add sage leaves. Continue warming until light brown in color. Cook the gnocchi in boiling salted water until they float to the surface, drain, and add to the sauce. Add ¼ cup parmesan cheese and 1 small ladle of cooking water. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Toss very well, adding a touch of butter and extra virgin olive oil to incorporate.

Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and hazelnuts and serve hot.


"Chef Gardens" is a weekly blog series featuring local restaurants with gardens in the greater Washington, DC area.

About the Author:
Ana Hurler, a senior multi-platform journalism major at the University of Maryland, College Park. Ana is interning with us this summer.

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