Tucked in a back corner of La Cuchara's dining room, baby radishes, lemon basil, arugula, sorrel and dill stretch their tiny leaves beneath the glow of LED lights, waiting to be snipped, sprinkled on dishes, briefly admired and gobbled up by diners.
The Woodberry restaurant is among the first in Baltimore growing microgreens onsite using a process created by the urban farm City-Hydro.
Founded in 2011 by Larry and Zhanna Hountz, City-Hydro supplies 75 varieties of microgreens to local restaurants from a second-floor room of the Hountzes' rowhouse near Patterson Park. Now at maximum capacity, City-Hydro is teaching its growing technique to local restaurants — giving them access to fresher ingredients and more control over the microgreens that decorate diners' plates, and saving them money along the way.
"The quality of these microgreens is much better than what we can get from a produce company or even from local farms," Ben Lefenfeld, chef and co-owner of La Cuchara, said. "It means fresher flavor, more nutrient-dense food — but also, yeah, the economics are certainly a huge factor."
Alma Cocina Latina in Canton recently began growing its own microgreens using City-Hydro's process, too, though not at the restaurant.
"We really want to teach people to grow onsite," Larry Hountz said during a tour of his vertical farm.
City-Hydro's growing style seems almost too simple. It takes 10 to 12 days to grow a microgreen from a seed to the point where it's ready to sell. Seeds germinate in food-safe containers on coconut husk pads, elevated by bamboo sticks above water in the base of the tray. It's a sustainable system Hountz refers to as "pure," using only LED lights, filtered water and some TLC — no fertilizers, pesticides or soil.
While the concept of growing herbs and greens onsite is not novel to restaurants, City-Hydro's bare-necessities system provides an alternative method.
City-Hydro offers free workshops to teach people how to grow microgreens using its method, usually training two or three people per week. They also sell their system — one rack of shelves, seven trays and LED lights — for $999.
After La Cuchara purchased a growing rack, sous chef Sarah Murray and server Juliette Dottle attended training at City-Hydro to learn the technique. The Basque restaurant began growing its own microgreens more than a month ago, and it uses 10 to 12 trays of microgreens during the week, plus six or seven more on weekends.
"At the end of a weekend, we'll be cleaned out," Dottle said.
Most restaurants City-Hydro works with buy four to six trays per week at $30 per tray. The farm's clients include Ten Ten, Boathouse Canton, Cinghiale, Felici Cafe, Fleet Street Kitchen, Myth & Moonshine, Magdalena, Pazo, Puerto 511 and Waterfront Kitchen.
Alma Cocina Latina began growing its own microgreens after exceeding City-Hydro's capacity. The Canton restaurant was buying about 12 trays per week and needed more.
"We were burning through trays," general manger Chris Rivera said.
Alma Cocina Latina just harvested its first batch of microgreens last week, grown at a sous chef's house. The restaurant uses 14 varieties of microgreens, with a heavy emphasis on baby cilantro, radishes, wasabi, cumin, black fennel, leeks and carrots, executive chef Enrique Limardo said.
Microgreens have traditionally been used as garnishes, but more chefs like Limardo are featuring them prominently in dishes.
"They are so powerful in flavor, so when we make a salad, for example, we use a bunch of them, mix them with the greens, with the vegetables, so you can get more flavor from the salad," Limardo said. "So it's not just two tiny leaves on a plate. We use a lot."
Murray said La Cuchara will sometimes pair a full vegetable with its microgreen counterpart.
"We've started using microgreens as a component on the plate in the dish," Murray said. "Instead of cutting up an actual radish, we put on the greens, and it's more eye-catching and it just looks a lot nicer."
In addition to the aesthetic and nutritional aspects — by weight, microgreens pack up to 40 times the nutrients of their mature forms, according to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — growing microgreens on-site is a way for restaurants to save on food costs. Making a tray costs $5 to $8, Hountz said, as opposed to purchasing one for $30. Other growers charge several times that amount for cut microgreens, Murray said.
"It's great to be able to get it for much cheaper and to be able to do more fun things in the kitchen besides that, kind of sourcing that money elsewhere," Murray said.
Back in its grow room, City-Hydro is always testing out new varieties of microgreens; baby brussels sprouts are the farm's latest experiment. Any vegetable that grows from a seed can be used as a microgreen, but some don't taste great in their infantile form, and others, like peppers and pumpkins, are poisonous.
The Hountzes perfected their indoor growing system through trial and error as Larry Hountz was recovering from a car accident that prevented him from returning to his information technology job.
They originally tried to grow and sell tomatoes, but they found microgreens were quicker and easier to grow than full-size veggies.
"Any kind of big vegetables, it's just not efficient," he said.
Some of the most popular microgreens City-Hydro sells now are pea shoots, baby parsley and baby nasturtium, Hountz said. Chefs choose what varieties they want in their trays, and their selections are grown to order. City-Hydro has a constant supply for its clients: one tray in germination, one growing under lights and one with the restaurant.
"It's one thing to grow," Hountz said. "It's another thing to supply every time the chef needs it."
As a former chef, Hountz understands the process of creating intriguing flavor profiles and often consults with his customers about how to best use their microgreens.
He hopes to see more restaurants growing their own, as La Cuchara and Alma Cocina Latina have done.
"I honestly don't know why more people don't do this in restaurants," Dottle said. "It's so easy."