Josh Steiner wears a chef's jacket instead of overalls when he steps outside his restaurant, Strano! by Chef Josh, to gather produce for his culinary creations.
Steiner, 27, grows vegetables and herbs in a 50-foot-long stretch that runs along a building behind his restaurant on Perkins Extd. in East Memphis. "Broccoli, zucchini squash, peppers and tomatoes, eggplant, fennel," he says. "And, of course, every herb: kale, rosemary, lavender."
He also grows herbs in containers right outside his back door.
"We do this for every caprese and every margherita pizza. We literally go outside, pick it, wash it, chop it. It's a really cool garden."
His urban garden isn't his only supplier of produce for the restaurant; Steiner also grows vegetables at his family's one-acre garden in Germantown. He used to grow vegetables on a 30-by-30-foot plot in the backyard of his Midtown home, but he moved.
Steiner inherited his love of gardening from his dad, Dr. Mitchell Steiner. "My father is a gentleman farmer, if you will. When I say 'gentleman farmer,' I use that term because he doesn't grow for other people. He'll give people vegetables, but he grows vegetables and gardens for pleasure.
- Josh Steiner picks fresh vegetables from the garden.
"This acre garden on our farm in Germantown, that's where I learned how to garden. What was growing there was everything from zucchini to squash, melons, tomatoes, all kinds of peppers. So, every year, there was a garden. Springtime and summertime."
Produce from that garden went to Russo's New York Pizzeria, a restaurant operated by Josh's uncle, Brett Steiner.
Josh remembers when he and his mom compared tomatoes from their garden and those from the grocery store. They'd examine "how shiny and perfect" the grocery store tomatoes were. "But try a homegrown tomato — an ugly one will blow out the flavor of the perfect one."
When his father got away from gardening to concentrate on his businesses, Josh took over the garden, which had gotten overgrown. "The farm helpers and myself got the garden back up, and it's been going ever since."
His idea when he took over the garden was to grow hops for his homemade beer. "I wanted to grow hops, but hops take years to grow."
Remnants of the hop plants, which haven't yet produced, still remain, but, for the most part, they burned up and "got imbedded with the weeds."
Josh opened his first restaurant, Strano! Italian Restaurant, in 2014 in Cooper-Young. "When we were building the restaurant, I was building the garden as well. My garden in Midtown and my garden in Germantown originally was for the restaurant. We grew eggplants, zucchini, squash, onions, melons, tomatoes, peppers — things that we use often in the restaurant.
"We always wanted to highlight the freshness of our garden, so we'd try not to do too much manipulation of the vegetables. When you see the fresh caprese salad, you could see the fresh tomatoes. And you could taste them."
He even grows the watermelons for his gazpacho. "It's a blend of bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, watermelon, cilantro, and basil. And we highlight that often. We let people know that we grew everything in it."
In addition to providing his diners with vegetables and herbs, which, he can proudly say immediately arrive to the table right from the garden, Josh enjoys the satisfaction he gets from gardening. "It makes me feel that I'm not going to go hungry, if that makes sense. I always have that confidence I can go to sleep and wake up and everything's going to be okay." Strano! by Chef Josh, 518 Perkins Extd., 275-8986, stranobychefjosh.com