Photo: Chef John Mooney With His Hydroponic Tower Garden Tomatoes
What is special about Bell, Book and Candle, Chef John Mooney's new restaurant in the West Village, is not immediately apparent. This is because the peaceful 94 seat dining room doesn't highlight that on the roof, just six stories above you, the majority of restaurant's produce is grown in multiple hydroponic tower gardens. Chef John Mooney and partner Mick O'Sullivan, believe in responsible sourcing. They wanted to take the farm-to-table restaurant a step further and in the process created a restaurant where the herbs, fruits and veggies are grown super locally-on the roof! The restaurant's location in a residential building without an elevator, initially presented a constraint. The problem was solved using an old fashioned pulley-system. The crops are lowered from the roof using a pulley to bring the bounty down to the ground floor. The pulley system is a carbon-neutral solution that is far less physically taxing than hauling produce down six flights of stairs.
Pulley system down six flights of stairs Photo: Bonnie Hulkower
The tower gardens are designed and engineered by Future Growing LLC. The white towers are made of UV protection enhanced plastic and studded with openings for the plants. The produce is grown in multiple vertical hydroponic tower garden systems that have self contained automatic watering units. The tower garden system works by stacking growing units on top of a 25-gallon reservoir. Solar panels power the irrigation system which is set on a timer, so the towers get watered three out of every twelve minutes. The plants and white roof lining also help with keeping the building cooler in the summer, creating energy efficiency benefits for the building's residents.
Using these self contained, soilless systems, allows Mooney and O'Sullivan to control what goes into the system, so they can grow organic produce with so no additives or pesticides. Beneficial insects protect the crops from pests and several bee varieties pollinate the heirloom fruits and vegetables.
Mooney says his (conservative) estimate is that their tower gardens will grow 60% of the restaurant's ingredients, the rest are supplied by a cold-weather greenhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that uses similar practices.
The tower gardens are easy enough to use and take up such a small amount of space so that people without prior hydroponic experience, can manage harvesting the plants without needing to hire a full-time gardener. Since Bell, Book & Candle is self-supplying, fruits and veggies can be picked at peak and used immediately, rather than being stored.
The down side: Since the gardens are on the roof and the stairs to the roof are only accessible via the private residences, you can't see the tower garden or pulley system in action. Furthermore, if you visit the restaurant currently or anytime in January or February, these are the two months that the towers are shut down and all of the produce is sourced from Pennsylvania. The chef is confident that he can grow on the rooftop the other ten months, as even when temperatures dip, a nutrient heater can be installed in the system. Mooney only shut down the towers in late December due to the weight of the snow from the Christmas Day Blizzard.
When the system is up and running full force, the restaurant grows more than 70 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs including: tomatillos; watermelons; cherry tomatoes; strawberries; Bibb, Red and Green Lettuces; Mesclun Mix, Cress Greens; Red Velvet Okra; Garbanzo Beans; Summer Squash; Japanese eggplant; Turkish Eggplant; parsley; basil; fennel; rosemary; dill; mint; onions and chives. The harvest is used to create dishes such as, a soup made with roasted heirloom pumpkins, a salad made with pears, blue cheese and rooftop raised mixed greens, and an omelette made with herbs and goat cheese. Mooney is confidant the garden will reduce his energy usage, his shopping budget and serve as a model for others. But brunch may just seem like a nice brunch, if you come and eat without knowing what goes on behind the scenes.
Brunch Photo: Bonnie Hulkower