Sunday, July 30, 2017

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.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Fenton Friday: Great Ground Cherry Crop

Sometimes an afterthought in the garden turns out to be your best performer.

For example, these Ground Cherries (Physalis spp.).

This year, I let a few re-seed in one spot at the front of my plot and in another spot I planted 3 scrawny, unwanted seedlings I got at the end of a plant swap. Neither patch was given much attention. I weeded a bit and threw some water on them when I did so around the neighboring plants, but I pretty much forgot these were there. This week, all the plants are booming with fruits and I may even have enough ripening at once to do a real recipe with -- like a jam or sauce. Please share your recipes, if you have some!

On a side note, am I the only one annoyed by the making up of new names for marketing edibles? Between Ground Cherries and the Mexican Sour Gherkin (Melothria scabra), I think I may have seen 10 different monikers for each floating around. It is hard enough keeping common names and Latin names straight, but throwing just straight up new nonsense names like Goldenberry and Cucamelon in the mix is highly irksome. 

By the way, you can find out all about sourcing and growing Ground Cherries in our September 2014 back issue of Washington Gardener Magazine posted here.

How is your edible garden growing this week?

About Fenton Friday: 
Every Friday during the growing season, I'll be giving you an update on my community garden plot at the Fenton Street Community Garden just across the street from my house. I'm plot #16. It is a 10 ft x 20 ft space and this is our 6th year in the garden. (It opened in May 2011.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Video Wednesday: Global Aquaponic Systems

We visited the Global Aquaponic Systems as part of the Montgomery County Farm Tour 2017 last weekend. Here is a glimpse at the fascinating research operation that can one day offer affordable fresh fish and organic produce.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Chef Gardens: At Ricciuti's, Farm to Table is Second Nature

Ricciuti’s Restaurant in Olney, MD, has been serving farm to table produce since opening in 1992
– long before it was in style. 
By Ana Hurler

“We’ve been doing kind of the farm to table thing for our whole existence before it was really fashionable, but we never labeled ourselves as that kind of restaurant back in the '90s,” said James Ricciuti, the restaurant’s owner and former chef.

Ricciuti’s is located in the 200-year-old Olney house on one acre of land in the center of town. It is just outside the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, so there are many small farms located within a 10-mile radius of the Italian restaurant. It is a prime location both for the townspeople and for attaining fresh produce. 

“That gives us access to actually a lot of very local farms,” Ricciuti said.
Outside the front of the restaurant, there are three 4-by-16 feet beds planted with a variety of seasonal produce and herbs.

“We decided since we had land available it’d be nice just to build some gardens here and there so we could show what farm to table is all about to our customers,” Ricciuti said. “So they see us walking out there and bringing in baskets of tomatoes and squash and peppers and whatever’s in season.”

Right now, the beds are filled with “the usual suspects: tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, lots of different herbs – basil, parsley, lavender, rosemary,” Ricciuti said. In the fall they plant more root vegetables, such as carrots and beets. As it gets colder, they will switch to more greens: Swiss chard, lettuces, and kale.

The produce from the garden is used in all facets of the restaurant. Ricciuti said they will incorporate tomatoes, squash, and peppers into many summer dinner entrees, while herbs such as lavender and basil are used behind the bar. The fresh ingredients are also used on their wood-fire oven pizzas.

“We’ve been doing it so long, it’s definitely second nature to us,” Ricciuti said. “We’re always trying to use the freshest possible product, and when we have something this fresh and this local, we want that to be the star of any dish we’re doing.”

Ricciuti mentioned their traditional Caprese salad with mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil, as an example of how they use the produce “in its freshest and simplest form when possible” by not manipulating it.

While absolutely everything that comes out of the garden is used, the small beds simply cannot supply all of the restaurant’s needs.

“It’s more or less of a little showcase garden for the restaurant,” Ricciuti said. “So the beds themselves don’t provide nearly enough produce for us, but they do provide some.”

For additional produce, Ricciuti’s turns to nearby farms in Montgomery County, such as Blueberry Gardens, the Farm at Our House, and several smaller locations. Ricciuti said he also grows some produce at home on his three acres of land. Besides produce, the restaurant also receives fresh local eggs, lamb, and pork.

“So we have a lot available just in Montgomery County,” Ricciuti said. “It’s really wonderful.”
From partnering with many local farms, to embracing the Olney House’s longstanding history in the town, Ricciuti’s is a proponent of working for, and with, its community.

“We are an independent restaurant,” Ricciuti said. “We’re very community oriented. We’re staffed with a lot of local kids – high school and college kids. We do a lot of work within the community, and we try to promote the whole gardening thing to everybody – that’s why they come out here. So we’re an advocate of the farm to table lifestyle.”

Newly appointed chef Wilder Martinez shared this recipe for Ricciuti’s Gazpacho using fresh tomatoes and peppers.
Chef Wilder Martinez and owner James Ricciuti
2 lbs heirloom tomatoes
2 lbs zebra tomatoes
1 lb sweet red peppers
1 whole jalapeño pepper
1 cup celery
1 lb red onion
3 lbs cucumbers
2 cloves garlic
2 oz extra virgin olive oil
Wash all the ingredients. Peel the cucumbers and remove the seeds, then cut them into small dices. Chop the onion and the jalapeño pepper. Put the rest of the ingredients into the food processor until they are very fine and juiced. Lastly, combine everything in the same container and add the olive oil, salt, and pepper.
"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.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Fenton Friday: Cotton Squares

I did some reading up on growing Cotton today and found out that the flower buds are called "squares." That was a new term to me. Then after flowering, the seed pods are called "bolls." As the seeds develop, the cotton fiber grows and then the pods burst open to form that classic cotton ball of white fluff. I cannot wait! On my 3 Red Cotton plants, I have about 30-45 bolls forming -- enough to make, well, not much. No matter, as I have no plans to transform them to woven cloth anyway. I want to use them in dried flower arrangements.

In the rest of the plot, the continuing heat wave is making the Peppers and Melons very happy. The rest of the veggies are putting on serious growth. The 'Red Currant' Tomatoes are flowering away and are starting to form fruits as well, which surprises me, as I had always heard tomatoes stop producing in the heat.

How is your edible garden growing this week?

About Fenton Friday: 
Every Friday during the growing season, I'll be giving you an update on my community garden plot at the Fenton Street Community Garden just across the street from my house. I'm plot #16. It is a 10 ft x 20 ft space and this is our 6th year in the garden. (It opened in May 2011.)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Win a signed copy of "The Chinese Kitchen Garden" in July 2017 Washington Gardener Magazine Reader Contest

For our July 2017 Washington Gardener Magazine Reader Contest, we are giving away three author-signed copies of The Chinese Kitchen Garden (each a $20 value).
   Our reviewer, Erica H. Smith, said, “The Chinese Kitchen Garden is several books in one, as its subtitle ‘Growing techniques and family recipes from a classic cuisine’ implies. It is a gardening book, because it explains how to grow a number of edible plants from Chinese cuisine. It’s a cookbook, because each plant description is supplemented by a recipe, along with general information about harvesting or buying the vegetable and how it is prepared. And it’s also a memoir of several generations of one Chinese-American family, full of snippets of personal and cultural history. This book is ideal for gardeners from beginners to experienced who want to grow plants from this cultural tradition, and for cooks who want to integrate these vegetables into their dishes.”
   To enter to win one of the three signed book copies, send an email to by 5pm on Monday, July 31, with “Chinese Kitchen Garden” in the subject line. In the body of the email, tell us which was your favorite article in our current issue and why. Please also include your full name and mailing address. The book winners will be announced on August 1.


The winners of our July 2017 Washington Gardener Magazine Reader Contest are:

- Jeff Malakoff, Arlington, VA
- Ed and Carol Yemola, Drums, PA 
- Dorothy Cichra, Silver Spring, MD 

Each winner receives an author-signed copies of The Chinese Kitchen Garden (each a $20 value).

Thank you to all who entered!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Video Wednesday: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

The annual Waterlily and Lotus Fest 2017 at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, DC, included crafts, wildlife talks, traditional Asian & African dancing performances, and much more. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Cucumbers, Coleus and much more inside the July 2017 issue of Washington Gardener Magazine

The July 2017 issue of Washington Gardener Magazine is now out.

It is posted to:

Inside this issue:
  • ·         A Slice of Summer: Cucumbers
  • ·         A Visit to Rachel Carson’s Silver Spring 
  • ·         Slow Gardening with Bulbs
  • ·         Investigating Urban Oak Deaths
  • ·         Winning Street Plantings
  • ·         Your Garden Task List
  • ·         Add Color with Coleus
  • ·         DC-MD-VA Gardening Events Calendar
  • ·         Meet UMD’s Sam Bahr
  • ·         and much more…

Note that any submissions, event listings, and advertisements for the August 2017 issue are due by August 10.

Subscribe to Washington Gardener Magazine today to have the monthly publication sent to your inbox as a PDF several days before it is available online. You can use the PayPal (credit card) online order form here:

Sunday, July 16, 2017

CHEF GARDENS: Up Top with Urbana

By Ana Hurler
At Urbana, executive chef Ethan McKee and his team bring urban gardening to a new level: the rooftop.
Located adjacent to the Kimpton Hotel Palomar near Dupont Circle in the heart of Washington, DC, McKee has been gardening on the hotel’s expansive rooftop for about four years. What started with seven 4 by 4 foot boxes has now grown to almost 60, all planted with a variety of rotating produce and herbs.
“There’s anywhere from 30 to 40 different ingredients on the roof that we start off with,” McKee said. "In the springtime we’re doing lots of leafy stuff: mixed lettuces, kale, Swiss chard, rapini. Some of those items we’re actually able to carry throughout the year, but we transfer in the summertime to more of the fruiting plants: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers.”
The rooftop harvests drive how the restaurant’s seasonal menu is created, with the addition of other locally sourced produce.
“What we’re doing here is our interpretation of northern Italian, Piedmont-type cuisine influenced by our region,” McKee said. “Taking things from what’s local and seasonal to us here in the Mid-Atlantic area and incorporating those ingredients.”
Planting the garden usually begins in late February, and everything is grown from seeds that are mostly organic and from sources also used by local farmers, McKee said. “So we’re using the same produce that we would source from another local farmer basically.”
Mckee said he also decided to use seeds because they’re more cost effective.
“You can buy for like $6 enough seeds for mixed greens for a whole summer for a restaurant,” he said.
At the beginning of the year, McKee plants a large amount of varieties so he can see what works well. Throughout the year, he will begin to streamline and only plant more of the most successful varieties.
“Kind of honing in on which ingredients we get the most yield out of so we have the most cost impact, especially from a food cost standpoint,” McKee said. “Also just a quality standpoint too because all the produce that we’re pulling down from our garden is straight from the garden; it hasn’t traveled, it hasn’t done anything so it has longer shelf life also.”
At the beginning, McKee said he was very excited to try growing many interesting varieties of plants, such as heirloom tomatoes, but found out their yield would only be enough to supply the restaurant for a week.
“It’s like, okay that was cool, but not really efficient for what we’re doing because we can get the same quality heirloom tomatoes from one of our local farmers that actually has a farm large enough to supply throughout the season.”
After some experimenting, McKee learned that herbs and leafy greens are the most efficient. Last year they grew around 500 pounds of basil to supply the entire season, he said.
“That’s really the goal: focusing on a few specific ingredients,” he added.
As the garden has evolved and McKee learns which plants are the most efficient, he has also had to learn how to maintain a garden of this size.
“Now we’re learning more of traditional farming practice, if you will, as far as succession planting so that we can supply ingredients for our needs throughout the entire season without having to supplement with other vendors,” he said. “Now we’ve gotten it to a certain size where we can rotate crops.”
The garden’s increased size also means it needs increased maintenance. In the summer, the garden is watered for an hour in the morning and at night. It also must be weeded and re-seeded.
“It’s now like a real earth up there so there’s just like some random stuff growing now,” he said. “Not just weeds but also plants that we planted the year before come up in other boxes across on the other side of the garden. So you get all kinds of little fun surprises of stuff that just comes up.”
All of the garden’s 4 by 4 feet boxes are 1 foot deep and made with Cedar so they last through the weather and repel bugs, McKee said. Each is lined with landscape fabric and filled with McKee’s dirt recipe: “a mixture of different composts: mushroom composts, leaf composts, we use lobster compost in some of them, top soil, vermiculites to lighten it a bit – being up on the roof we try not to cave the hotel in.”
McKee said he’s always been into gardening. While growing up in Texas, his grandmother showed him how to grow prize-wining vegetables she would take to the county fair.
“To me it just makes so much sense to do,” he said. “So I decided that if we’re going to do it though, we need to do it for real. And doing things in buckets is not really going to work for a restaurant.”
While McKee's rooftop garden cannot supply all of the hundreds of pounds of produce needed for the restaurant, he does provide a special chef experience for diners looking to taste the freshest produce through “Cicchetti at Urbana.” The exclusive experience is open to only eight guests every Saturday evening at 7 p.m. for $65 per person. Patrons get a front-row seat as McKee prepares a continuously-changing eight-course tasting menu, with nearly 100 percent of the produce sourced from the rooftop.
 Chef Ethan's Pesto Pizza. Photo courtesy of Urbana.
Below is Chef Ethan McKee’s recipe for Basil Pesto using easy-to-grow herbs.
1 cup packed basil leaves
1 cup packed parsley leaves
4 cloves garlic 
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

Combine the basil, parsley, garlic and pine nuts in a blender.  Turn the blender on medium speed and pour in the olive oil.  Blend until smooth.  Transfer the pesto to a bowl and fold in the Parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
"Chef Gardens" is a new 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.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Edible Bloom Day

It is the 15th of the month, which means Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day again. To view links to other garden bloggers' blooms around the world to see what it blooming in their gardens today and to read their collective comments, go to

Here in the Mid-Atlantic USA (USDA zone 7) on the DC-MD border, the past month has been extremely hot and mostly dry. We got a couple quick, heavy storms, but we need some good, long soaking ones. 
At my community garden plot at the Fenton Street Community Garden, I have several edible gardens growing and a few ornamental too.
Pictured above are some Calendula flowers up by my plot sign. These are sometimes called "Pot Marigolds" and have a nice, mild scent and flavor. I also have regular French Marigolds planted next to my tomatoes as insect deterrents. I cannot stand their scent or flavor, nor do I care for the look of the blooms, but if they keep bugs away from my other edibles, it is worth it to put up with them.
Elsewhere in the plot I have Chamomile, Celosia, Allium flowers, Lamb's Ear, Queen Anne's Lace, Sunflowers, and Zinnias. The zinnias are not blooming yet due to a pesky rabbit family that moved into our garden this spring and ate all the zinnia seedlings. I re-seeded and threw a cover cloth on them and hope these make it.
I also have purple Morning Glory vines re-seeding everywhere in my plot. I think this is 'Grandpa Ott'. I am pulling all the baby seedlings I can find up, but I left a few vines to go up a trellis as it is very pretty - if you get up early enough to enjoy the blooms!
Allium with bee
So what is blooming in YOUR garden today?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Fenton Friday: Peppers Producing

Sweet Pepper 'Candy Cane'
The interns (Ana and Mika) and I were surprised this week to already be picking some of the peppers off the 7 plants we are trialing. We picked 'Dragon Roll' and tasted those along with the sweet 'Candy Cane' peppers pictured here. Both were a bit on the green side, but still flavorful and would be nice in salads or other dishes. All the rest of the peppers are covered in flowers and fruits and can be picked at any time - just a matter of taste as to how "hot" or ripe we want them to be. The only one dragging is the heirloom 'Fish' pepper. We have not fertilized any of them as yet, but maybe should think about that for the 'Fish' one.

The watermelon and muskmelon (aka canteloupe) continue to double and triple in size. I am glad something is liking these record high temps this week! 

I have taken the cover cloth off my green bean and zinnia seedlings as they are getting taller and I think the rabbit danger has passed.

A couple of the 'Little Bing' tomatoes turned red this week, so I snacked on those. I would have also snacked on the ripe Ground Cherries I had set aside, but they disappeared overnight. Ants? Birds?

How is your edible garden growing this week?

About Fenton Friday: 
Every Friday during the growing season, I'll be giving you an update on my community garden plot at the Fenton Street Community Garden just across the street from my house. I'm plot #16. It is a 10 ft x 20 ft space and this is our 6th year in the garden. (It opened in May 2011.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Video Wednesday: PhotoSynthesis

The winning images of the 11th annual Washington Gardener Photo Contest were shown at an art show at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, VA. All 17 stunning photos were taken in DC-area gardens. Both inspirational and educational, this show represents the best of garden photography in the greater DC metropolitan region.

The photo show reception was Sunday, July 9, 2017, from 2:00-3:30pm at the Meadowlark Visitor Center's lobby. You may also come by and view the photos any time during the normal Visitor Center hours (10am-7pm daily). The photo show runs through July 31.

Washington Gardener Magazine is already announcing an 12th Annual Washington Gardener Photo Contest. Start gathering your images now and throughout this year. Most all of the entry rules will remain the same as this year’s contest. We will again accept the entries during the first three weeks of January.

Washington Gardener Magazine ( is the gardening publication specifically for the local metro area — zones 6-7 — Washington DC and its suburbs. Washington Gardener Magazine’s basic mission is to help DC area gardens grow better. The magazine is written entirely by and for local area gardeners.

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens ( is a park of beauty, conservation, education and discovery. Throughout the year at this 95-acre complex are large ornamental display gardens and unique native plant collections. Walking trails, lakes, more than 20 varieties of cherry trees, irises, peonies, an extensive shade garden, native wildflowers, gazebos, birds, butterflies, seasonal blooms and foliage create a sanctuary of beauty and nature. Meadowlark is part of Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Chef Gardens: Rooftop to Glass at Firefly

Bartender Brendan Ambrose in the Firefly rooftop herb garden.
Bartender Brendan Ambrose in the Firefly rooftop herb garden.
By Ana Hurler
“Forget farm to table, I’m growing your drinks rooftop to glass.”
This slogan is how lead bartender Brendan Ambrose said he approaches creating and serving cocktails at Firefly since beginning work on its rooftop garden about a year and a half ago.
Ambrose’s signature drinks combine his rooftop harvests with 24 years of bartending experience for an end result that is both classic and fresh.
Cocktails such as the Transformation Cubed, a gimlet with a house-made basil-lime cordial poured over an Aviation sphere, and the Aw Snap!, with Plymouth Gin, Cointreau, sugar snap pea and tarragon cordial, and rosemary-lemon thyme syrup in a Genepy Des Alpes misted glass, exemplify his ability to incorporate the garden into his bar.
The restaurant’s seasonal offerings take a new spin on the classics, while incorporating fresh ingredients from around the region – and the rooftop.
Executive Chef Jammir Gray “is all about bringing classic American comfort food with a little bit of a modern twist using as much fresh and local vegetables as she can from around the region,” Ambrose said.
Although Firefly is adjacent to the Kimpton Hotel Madera in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, Ambrose said its main focus is “taking care of all Washingtonians.” After serving at nightclubs and sports bars for years around DC, Ambrose said he is lucky to now have the opportunity through Kimpton to take on projects such as the rooftop garden.
Today the garden is still in its infant stages, but it has made a great comeback from its previously forgotten state, as Ambrose tells the story:
“I had just started as a bartender and in passing one day I heard someone say, 'You know it’s a shame what happened to the rooftop boxes’ … So in hearing this, I ran up to the rooftop and it was literally just four 6-by-6 foot boxes that were just over-weeded and a mess. I didn’t even think they were growing anything. I would come in everyday about a half-hour or hour early an do as much as I could. Now, a year and a half later, we are really starting to see the fruits of our labor.”
Ambrose said he is currently growing “every herb you can imagine, from chamomile to lavender,” along with watermelon, cantaloupe, tri-colored beans, four different kinds of tomatoes, six different peppers, and Black Indian basil given to him by a guest.
Herbs are the garden’s main focus, but Ambrose hopes Chef Jammir Gray will be able to incorporate more produce in future dishes as the garden continues to grow.
“We are using 80 percent of what we grow on the roof in our cocktails,” he said.
Having this resource has allowed Ambrose to concoct beautiful, seasonal drinks as he adapts his years of experience to the ever-changing craft cocktail scene. One of his recent ideas is a make your own Bloody Mary bar for private events, where guests request the herbs they want and he uses them to create infused vodka.
Another creative idea happening this summer that incorporates both the bar and the outdoors theme is ‘Til the Fireflies Come Out Happy Hour, from 4 p.m. until sunset. Twinkling lights around the tree in the middle of the restaurant signal the emergence of the fireflies and the end of happy hour. During this time patrons can enjoy two more of Ambrose’s creations: the Firefly (vodka, triple sec, lemon juice, house-made dandelion-lemon-lavender simple syrup, and wildflower honey-infused Chai tea) and the Lightning Bug (rum, lemon-thyme-sage tincture, tropical safflower and cornflower blossoms syrup, fresh guava, pineapple, and orange juices, and coconut milk.)
Aw Snap! cocktail photo by Bonnary Lek

“If you don’t constantly think outside the box you are going to be left behind,” he said.
However, the garden is about more than just creating pretty garnishes for cocktails. Everything Ambrose uses has been upcycled – the raised boxes were made from delivery pallets and the soil is mixed with composted food from the restaurant.
“Everything is one big cycle here,” he said. “That’s what makes the end result of making these beautiful cocktails that much more important, and touches on how passionate I am for what I do.”
Ambrose’s passion and expertise shine through not only his craft cocktails, but also the transformation of his garden into a useful utility for Firefly.

“It’s absolutely amazing the bottom line when you really take in everything you’re growing and realize how much you’re putting out on that same product,” he said. “That’s what makes me think, ‘Why doesn’t everyone grow their own stuff?’ It’s not that hard.”
The Aw Snap! cocktail photo above is by Bonnary Lek. Ambrose shares his cocktails and ingredients via his Instagram account:

"Chef Gardens" is a new 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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