From Farm to Table in One Restaurant
05 Dec, 2010
Uncommon Ground on Chicago’s Devon Avenue is a unique enough restaurant. Housed in a building that’s over 100 years old, with an elegant but comfortable atmosphere created with large windows, brick and wood, a fireplace, and a genuine art-deco bar, the eatery offers a seasonal, taste-filled menu structured completely around locally grown, sustainable ingredients. But this particular establishment has something that no other has: the country’s very first certified organic rooftop farm.
It has always been a local and sustainable venture for owners Mike and Helen Cameron, since the creation of their first Uncommon Ground location (Devon Avenue is the second). “We started Uncommon Ground 20 years ago, purely from the idea of having very community-based concepts and just wanting to do really good homemade cooking,” Helen Cameron told Organic Connections. “I came from this very practical and common-sense place—making things from scratch, really embracing the Slow Food ideals before I even knew Slow Food existed. We were into being sustainable, being responsible for the environment and so on, even in the early days. As time went on, that really started progressing and we were able to make more and more connections with local producers and farmers. We’ve always pursued that. Now our two Uncommon Ground restaurants are the highest-ranked third-party-certified green restaurants in the city of Chicago, by the Green Restaurant Association. I’m very proud of that.”
It was when the Camerons decided to expand to a second location that the concept of a rooftop farm was born. “The idea for it actually came from the day that we were about to go into contracts to buy the building for our second restaurant,” Helen recalled. “We brought a ladder over there to take a look at the condition of the roof. Mike held the ladder for me as I climbed up, and as soon as my head cleared the parapet I could see this vast expanse of silver-lined roofing, shining in the sun. The first thing that kind of popped into my head was a big red tomato. I think about food all the time, and it’s been problematic for me to grow tomatoes at home where I live because I don’t have quite enough sunshine in my backyard to pull it off. It really bums me out, because I think one of the greatest presents of the summertime is a good heirloom tomato. I grew up with those; I would even wake up in the middle of the night as a kid and go out in the backyard and pluck a tomato, eat it and go back to sleep. Those tomatoes are just a joy, a treasure in my early life, so that’s the first thing I thought of. When I got up there, I was like, ‘Oh my God, Mike, we could grow food up here!’ He came up, we looked around, and he agreed that we could take advantage of that full, sunny space.”
It was fortunate they decided on the rooftop farm before they began serious work on renovating the building. The roof needed to be able to sustain the weight that a farm entails, which includes soil, so the Camerons brought in a structural engineer to advise them on what they needed to do. They were then able to roll the costs into their financing and begin the required tasks.
“Because we knew we’d be open much of the time, we realized we needed the entire space of the building to work,” Helen said. “That included the basements, but Mike couldn’t stand up straight in them because some of the ceilings were just too low. It was necessary to increase the height, so we had to dig down 5 feet. In the process of doing that, we reinforced our load-bearing walls: we replaced the wood beams that were holding up the building from the basement level with steel I-beams so that we could handle a greater weight load up on the roof. Then from the roof perspective, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to put the farm directly on the surface of the roof; so we reinforced the parapet walls and put in a grid of steel beams that support a floating deck. We then built the planter beds themselves: ten 10-foot by 4-foot by 12-inch-deep planter boxes made from cedar and steel—materials that are very long lasting. Next, because there needed to be a railing system to code for the roof, we decided to use the railing system for smaller planter boxes as well, all around the perimeter of the farm.”
To complete the miniature ecosystem and help make it self-sustaining, the Camerons added a full irrigation system, four beehives, and barrels to collect rainwater. Green building and sustainable practices were also utilized elsewhere in construction of the restaurant: solar thermal panels were installed on the roof to heat water and reduce gas consumption, all paints were low VOC, and wood was from locally harvested fallen timber.
Today the garden grows a wide variety of crops, including peppers, eggplant, lettuces, heirloom tomatoes, radishes, beets, okra, spinach, fennel, mustard, bush beans, shallots, and more, as well as flowers for the bees.
According to Helen, the rooftop farm has changed their lives in many wonderful ways. First of all, the ingredients from the garden are used in both restaurants’ menus.
But Helen has seen even more value from the farm in setting a vitally needed example. “I feel that we have a very, very positive local influence,” she said. “Many more people are growing their own food now, using earth boxes on their balconies; wherever they can grow something they’re inspired to do so. It’s been a tremendous connection to our immediate community, and then to the grander community of people who are looking to bring additional urban agriculture into the city by doing a lot more things like community gardening—creating good, viable food systems in the city.”
It is only part of farm director Dave Snyder’s duties to maintain the farm. “The other half of Dave’s job is education,” Helen explained. “We have six urban agriculture interns that work for us, who are responsible for helping us grow the food and take care of plants organically. They’ve come a long way just over the summer in terms of really understanding sustainability from the urban ag aspect; but because of the way we operate, they’re getting, by extension, a lot more information. For instance, we work with Loyola University down the street, and they take all our used fryer oil and produce biodiesel with it.
“We also tour many school groups and all varieties of people who are interested in urban agriculture, and in particular rooftop food production. I’ve been doing plenty of public speaking about it as well.”
The city of Chicago has noticed. “I just got asked to be on the mayor’s task force for vertical farming,” Helen said. “The city really wants to commit to getting a vertical farm in place, something that could produce a substantial amount of food, with much more growing space than I have. It’s very important to me.”
Helen concludes with her statement of the value of bringing farming down to such an intimate level. “I see how into it people are, and how it bonds them. Kids love picking things and planting seeds. It’s a way of activating people and bringing them back to one of the most important things that they do, and that’s eating. If you think about it, food is such an intimate thing: you are what you eat—that is your health; that is what gives you what is necessary to survive. We need to begin taking control of that fact in our own lives. When you start doing that, it’s so pleasant; we’re all enjoying this so much. Then you get to know the people, the community bonds a little bit more, and kids are busy and they’re not getting into trouble. It’s just really an awesome cycle of life. If we can keep on going, hopefully we can bring food to food deserts in the city, which is a big issue here in Chicago. There are areas where people can’t get fresh food, and that’s really bad. We need community gardens, vertical farms—whatever. Any which way we can bring good healthy food to people, we need to do it.”
For more information on Uncommon Ground, visit their website at www.uncommonground.com.