Niven Patel Takes the Farm to Table Movement Literally
As I pull into the unassuming farm in Homestead, a low and wide ancient-looking tree captures my attention. I wonder if the grapefruit-sized ornaments that hang from it are edible. I’d been told that Chef Niven Patel collects saplings and seeds from all over the world. This had to be one of them. After he greets me warmly, he holds one of the fruits, as though seeing it for the first time. “This is custard apple I brought from India,” he says. “Exotic varieties grow here like they grow in Southeast Asia and India. When the flesh is soft it’s ready to eat in a few weeks.”
Welcome to Rancho Patel, the two-acre farm of the award-winning chef behind two of the Gables’ most celebrated new restaurants, Mamey and Orno, both in the Thesis Hotel on US 1 across from the University of Miami. Literally down to earth unless we were walking, Patel was not who I expected to meet. As a James Beard nominee and one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2020, I expected less humility from a man who was featured on the top fold of the New York Times Sunday food section.
“We built this not for the accolades or to get any other awards, but because it’s what we believed in,” he says of his farm, which is also his home. It’s where his twin girls are being raised, able to wake up and pluck the sweetest tomatoes fresh off the vine. “It does make it gratifying because it is my passion.”
Patel, who first established his reputation locally with the Ghee Indian Kitchen in Kendall, got the idea about eight years ago that he should be growing the food he cooks. While the farm to table movement is now well established, back then his decision was based, he says, on a friend who cut a tomato in half and threw the rest into the trash. “He made me see how most people do not understand how hard it is to grow,” he says. “So, I said, ‘You know what? Next year we are going to start a farm.’” And so it began, though not without fits and starts.
“We got all the irrigation entrenched [but] I had no idea what we were doing,” he says. “We ordered hundreds of varieties of rare seeds. Initially we were like, ‘What can we buy that’s cool?’ We put it in the ground and it started growing, and then it died just as quickly. I’d have a whole row of kale and overnight it would be eaten up by bugs.”
That was seven years ago. Now Rancho Patel has what the chef calls, “a healthy ecosystem.” These include flowers that help protect the organic produce. “They act like natural pesticides. The marigolds, sunflowers… they are all very nurture-some, so they eat this versus your veggies. They are kind of sacrificial.” Then there are the ladybugs and bees doing their part with help from another local farmer, Laura Sutton, who is typically seen be- hind the helm of a wheelbarrow.
The front part of Rancho Patel holds most of the fruit trees: custard apple, a little fig tree, lychee, a papaya tree that “kind of snuck in,” and 15 mango varieties. “We’ll actually pick the green mangoes from it to do a green mango pickle,” says Patel. “These provide over 1,000 pounds of mangoes to last us through the year.”
Patel’s extensive travels, along with a year in Florence, Italy, helped create his appreciation for seasonal, local produce. But, he says, “What really got me into this was when I was a chef in Grand Cayman in a place called Brasserie. When I took over, they had a farm and two little fishing boats… Every Friday they would introduce me to a local grandmother and bring us into the kitchen and cook a Caymanian dish… Seeing the process from the seed to growing it – to appreciate how everything you see here takes four to five months of growing – that is really what got me into farming.”
As our walking tour continues, we stop to smell a makrut lime tree. As if revealing a secret he announces, “This. This is what makes Thai food Thai.” The immediate smell of the leaf confirms that.
The first row of vegetables he shows me is for taro leaf – patra in Indian. He says they make a fritter out of it. Planted behind these is a variety of bok choy from Southeast Asia called tatsoi. Then there is the nasturtium, about which Patel explains, “The leaves, flowers, and seedpods are all edible with an almost mustard-like taste. It is super crazy, but we add these small yellow flowers to salads…. [it] gives a little burst of flavor.”
Patel carries several menus in his head, but not everything is decided ahead of time. That is one of the joys of farm to table. “Like that (Siberian) kale just harvested,” he says. “Yesterday, I went in with no thought of kale, and then I took it to the restaurant. It was like, ‘What are we doing with 40 pounds of kale?’ So, we made a braised green dish and it was awesome.” This creative flexibility “is what keeps me ex- cited, inspired – even the team – every day when I bring stuff.”
Purple broccolini will start shooting up soon and sweet potato will again be harvested next year. “Here are garlic and chives, and the beauty of these is you just snip them back and they keep growing. There’s lemon balm right here and some leeks that just started growing.”
Then he points out a patch of radicchio, and I notice tomatoes and lemongrass growing intermittently among the rows. He calls these “volunteer plants” from a harvest three years ago. He then points to the arugula: “In Orno right now, we make a little pesto out of this for a tomato dish.”
I’m then shown Chinese celery, which is smaller and with a more powerful taste than the Western variety. Patel shows off some fennel he’s planted from seeds brought back from Italy. Carrots are lined up next, reserved for an upcoming farm dinner he has planned. For these events, the seating is arranged at outdoor tables. “I love having people experience this,” he says, watching them change their perspective on food when they eat it right next to where it was grown.
There is beauty in how a restaurant can revolve around the season, Patel says, and there is a rhythm to the process. He mentions that by summer, the eggplants will start producing, and that in two to three weeks the tomato plants will fade away and beans will start growing in their place. The menu is never the same, but when pressed, he says that if he had to eat only one dish for life it would be, “Comfort food. Indian comfort food. Take all these vegetables, and lentils and rice, and life is good.”