Farmer Lee Jones (left) with Jamie Simpson (right)
Image by Diana DeLucia.
I met Jamie Simpson for the first time at The Chef’s Garden in Ohio in late 2017. It was an absolute pleasure to discover such a passionate young man who has followed his instincts and dreams. I have worked with many great chefs but this young man stands out from the crowd in one particular fashion - he is truly living his dream without worry of the day to day challenges of a restaurant model. His passion for his craft paired with the freedom he has been given at The Chef’s Garden has allowed him to create culinary visions on a daily basis to his heart’s desire. He has given the culinary industry much inspiration. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Where are you originally from, Jamie?
Charleston, South Carolina.
GK: Where did your culinary career begin?
When I was 20, I began working at the Charleston Place Hotel, which was managed by the Orient Express company. It’s right in the heart of Charleston. It houses beautiful restaurants and beautiful amenities. It was a 400 room hotel. In my time at Orient Express I was privileged to travel to six or seven of their properties around the world.
GK: How did you find the Chef’s Garden and Farmer Lee Jones?
I met Farmer Lee at The Charleston Food and Wine Festival, but I never realized the reach that he had. When I began traveling, I started to see more and more of The Chef’s Garden produce. I was lucky enough to spend some time working with Joel Robuchon, and when I saw that The Chef’s Garden produce was placed on a pedestal with its own space, I was magnetized. I called Farmer Lee to see if there was an opportunity to come and see the farm, and as a result, I spent two weeks there and had the kitchen to myself at nights, during the day I’d go and work in the fields. The effort that they had made for me was special, and I fell in love. I went back to Charleston and stayed there for another few years, and then one day I decided to call Farmer Lee back - as the farm was always on my mind. Farmer said “I have a project for you if you’re interested in it, it’s a four-month deal, it will help us get set up for the Roots Conference.
GK: Tell us about the Roots Conference.
The Roots Conference is an annual gathering that brings together luminaries throughout the culinary world. Writers, speakers, advocates, and most importantly, Chefs, gather here at The Culinary Vegetable Institute at The Chef’s Garden annually to hear a curated selection of the most forward thinking and like minds. Our topics can range from labor laws to design ideas to water in Africa. Every year is different. 2012 was the first Roots Conference, we had about 120 people, I didn’t know anyone, and I was in way over my head,I didn’t know how to organize a conference, but it was a plunge into a different world, and I loved it, and I still love it.
GK: When did you get offered the full-time position?
After the second of my four month Roots Assignment, Farmer offered me a full-time position. What has kept me here is the connection to where our food comes from. Knowing every single person involved in the product that we serve is amazing. Having the ability to sort of stop amid the noise and haste of the standard restaurant models and be able to focus on a single
product, technique, presentation, or flavor profile. That’s been a huge and valuable opportunity for everyone that enters this kitchen.
GK: Tell us about your relationship with Farmer Lee.
He’s like a dad. After that first visit all those years ago, the farm never left my mind or my heart. When I returned, I ended up staying with Lee and Mary, in their house for 18 months. Our early morning cups of coffee; he’ll probably tell you the same if you ask him, were some of the most fundamental, shape-shifting conversations of my life. Farmer Lee is a thinker. He’s a big picture painter. He’s an artist. The conversations that we had, back and forth, is what this place has become. It’s a mutual chef and farmer relationship. “Where are we in the season right now?” That kind of conversation comes from Farmer, and that’ll allow us to understand what direction the menus are going. It keeps things genuine.
GK: There’s a lot of planning here for each day as well as future planning. Tell us about that.
Imagine an old homestead. Imagine what you had to do in your house, with your family, to preserve your way through the year. If you’re going to produce everything off your land, not only survive but to do it deliciously, it’seven more work. Anybody can throw some turnips in a pressure cooker, it’s the art and craft of cooking that keeps people coming back for more.
GK: How do you encourage learning?
Everybody is encouraged and empowered to find new flavors and textures and new species of plants that are available or lend themselves to the culinary applications. We’ll explore them if it makes sense, then that becomes dialogue for the sales and marketing team. Then we may ask “Who wants this?” We’ve had people who travel, explorers who’d travel the world looking for rare and unique and exotic forms of produce. A lot of what we find are things that lend themselves to a particular region. We can create tropical environments and grow in greenhouses.
GK: Is the farm all year round?
Yes. It’s amazing.
GK: Does it snow here?
Yes. But Farmer Lee will say “It’s all about Mother Nature’s balance, painful but oh so helpful. It helps with the drainage of water for the following summer, it helps kill off plant diseases in the soil and helps reduce insect populations, these are all natures way of maintaining the proper balance.”
GK: How many varieties of product are grown here?
There are approximately 600 varieties of vegetables here.
GK: What drives the farm?
To the farm, the driving philosophy is that “every part of the plant’s life offers something new and unique to the plate.” You’ll probably hear Farmer say that. Every single plant. It’s just a matter of application. Some things don’t lend themselves as easily to a plate, but with the right application, they’re amazing. You see it with turnips, beets, carrots and parsnips, even rutabaga flowers. Brussel sprouts and broccoli make flowers and really cool seeds. Carrots were a spice and an herb for 5,000 years! For 300 years we’ve been eating the root as a civilization. When was the last time you had carrot herb? Or carrot spice?
GK: Sounds like a lot of historical research is happening here.
Oh, yeah! It’s what this place is. It’s a delicate and delicious balance between preserving traditions even beyond what we know as tradition.
GK: It’s like going back in time before 1953 before they brought in all the pesticides. You’re adventurous and an artist, you’re going back to the study of food and product. I think Chefs find their roots when they visit the farm.
Yes, we have an average of 600 visiting chefs a year that come through. It’s become this bucket list destination for people to see. That’s powerful.
GK: Pertaining specifically to the Private Golf and Resort Industry, I am discovering a stronger interest in the culinary side of the club. Health and Wellness are becoming big terms at Private Clubs and Resorts nowadays, and they are starting to think about where they can source the best product for their members; people like yourselves are very influential.
Thank you. We are continually working with many new approaches and technologies; this allows us to grow and develop and hopefully, we can make big strides in the way people view and eat food.
~by Diana DeLucia
Tomato Salad with tomato sorbet, fried green tomato and campari tomato filled with tomato cherry gazpacho. Recipe by Jamie Simpson, The Chef's Garden. Image by Diana DeLucia.