Rooftop to Table

 An up close & personal tour of Roberta’s garden

By Stephen Troiano

The rooftop garden sits directly on top of the restaurant. Built in 2009, the garden provides chefs with fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers such as chocolate mint, purple basil, blueberries and corn.

The rooftop garden sits directly on top of the restaurant. Built in 2009, the garden provides chefs with fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers such as chocolate mint, purple basil, blueberries and corn.

On a typical evening, Ubers and Lyfts constantly pull up onto Brooklyn’s Moore Street on the corner of Bogart. The L train arrives at the Morgan stop for tourists more adventurous than their counterparts who stopped at Bedford. They’ve seen it on VICE and read about it in the New York Times, but somehow still struggle to find the front red door. Hungry people wait hours for a table so they can try a pizza with honey on it. I was a chef at Roberta's for close to a year, and as much as it has been discovered and re-discovered time and time again by it's fans and loyal customers, there’s a special and unique part of the famed restaurant that people don’t know is right under their nose, or as I should say, above their heads.

Fairy tale eggplants, Calabrian peppers, blueberries, raspberries, chocolate mint, scarlet frill mustard, purple basil, and so, so much more has been growing on site at Roberta’s ever since the early days. While patrons sit and eat in the restaurant’s atrium, all of this is growing in the rooftop garden. As the brainchild of Roberta’s, owners Brandon Hoy & Carlo Mirarchi along with Brooklyn Grange & Eagle Street Rooftop Farm gardeners Gwen Shantz (who started out as a pizza chef), Anastasia Cole Plakias and Ben Flanner, the Roberta’s garden has set the example for other restaurants trying to reduce their carbon footprints by growing their own ingredients. I met with gardener Melissa Metrick, who has been at Roberta’s for seven years, to get the whole story and to pick her brain about urban farming:

Melissa Metrick, the Roberta’s gardener, has been with the restaurant since 2010 and teaches Intro to Urban Agriculture at New York University.

Melissa Metrick, the Roberta’s gardener, has been with the restaurant since 2010 and teaches Intro to Urban Agriculture at New York University.

“Personally, for me, having an urban garden or urban farm, you want to teach not only guests about how food is grown, but also the chefs. They’re really experiencing how to grow things sustainably and to harvest things sustainably, which is kind of a big deal.”

“Would you say that a lot of chefs come here oblivious to gardening?”

“A lot of them are actually very knowledgeable and they tell me about varieties all the time that I don’t know about that I then grow for them. I wouldn’t say that they’re necessarily knowledgeable about gardening practices but they do know a lot about seasonality about different varieties. They’re really getting into using every part of the plant. If I’m growing something specifically for the flowers or for the leaf or something then at the end of the season they’ll be like, ‘I want to use the stem, too. I want to use every part of it,’ which is kind of cool. So if I’m growing Bronze Fennel, which you mostly grow for the fronds, I’d then let it flower and then go to seed so they can get three harvests out of it. So not only do they get the fronds, but they get the flowers and they can pickle the seeds or do something interesting with it.”

“Are most of the things you plant for taste or for décor?”

“Most of it is garnishes. Most of what I grow are either really expensive to get at the market and they’re hard to find varieties. Varieties chefs want to experiment with. Or they don’t travel well. Certain edible flowers you bring back from the farmer’s market, half of that container is going to be dead. They can be very fragile. It’s so much easier for me to grow it on site and the chefs can pick it fresh.”

“Roberta’s & Blanca, they succeed financially, and I know that this garden is a trendsetter in a way. Do you think having a garden like this is only accessible for restaurants with the space and monetary means to support it?”

"First of all, it’s about having a space that is permanent and not having to move all the time. If you want to start a restaurant farm or garden, it has to be accessible, it has to be that you’re not going to put a lot of energy into it, so you don’t have to move it in two years, which I think could be a real problem for a lot of people…Going off of that point, the main thing is having enough labor and labor that’s passionate to do it. All of it is time. It doesn’t cost that much money. Most of the stuff that we bought is all recycled materials. All of the containers were free, they found them somewhere. They just had a little bit of grit. Seeds don’t cost that much money. I spent, like, $300-$400 in the beginning of the season for seeds, which, honestly, that’s not a lot. So much of urban agriculture started in the 70s in run-down areas. It was a way for the community to take back these run-down spaces, and they didn’t have a lot of money.”

“Which this is a prime example of. This whole lot used to be an auto body shop.”

“Exactly. A lot of the community garden movement in the 1970s happened in areas that didn’t have a lot of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, this city was going bankrupt and wasn’t taking care of their citizens at all and there were a lot of these empty lots where a lot of not the greatest things were happening.”

“Have you seen any other restaurants in the area follow suit?”

“Yeah, actually there’s a bunch of restaurants. Some restaurants are going into hydroponics, too. There’s Bell Book & Candle, they might have a hydroponic system underneath. And, of course, this isn’t a restaurant, but Whole Foods has a whole greenhouse on top in Gowanus.”

Later, I asked Melissa what got her into gardening and what continues to drive passion:

“My grandfather was a gardener on Long Island and I’d help him out a little bit. I would say the main thing would be the observance of my own way of eating, which growing up in New York City, we are not, or used to not be, the most conscious of healthy ways of eating compared to the west coast.”

“Just give me a slice of pizza.”

“Exactly, and we’re so busy all the time. When I was in college I studied environmental science and also photography, and through studying environmental science I was studying more agricultural practices that are just horrible for the environment. So through gaining knowledge of that, I started changed my eating habits, which eventually got me more interested in food and growing food. And I think the whole reason why I do it is, hopefully, so I can eat healthier and other people can eat healthier, but also I just like being outside. I’m kind of an outdoor cat.”

Melissa is an adjunct professor at New York University and teaches Intro to Urban Agriculture. She also manages a garden on Houston Street, Manhattan. Over the winter, her plans are to teach at NYU, mulch the Roberta’s garden and maybe plant a few bulbs. Before I left, she gave me one last piece of advice:

“Nature hates an empty bed.”

A Fairy Tale eggplant on the vine. Over the summer, Roberta’s featured the Crushed Velvet pizza made with an eggplant purée, mozzarella, pecorino, Fairy Tale eggplants, mint, sesame seeds and white balsamic vinaigrette.

A Fairy Tale eggplant on the vine. Over the summer, Roberta’s featured the Crushed Velvet pizza made with an eggplant purée, mozzarella, pecorino, Fairy Tale eggplants, mint, sesame seeds and white balsamic vinaigrette.

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Roberta's & Blanca are located at 261 Moore Street, Brooklyn NY

Photographed by Stephen Troiano

FoodStephen Troiano