A Chef Who Grows His Own Ingredients for His Restaurant
April 11, 2023
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Some scholars believe that the tree of forbidden knowledge from which Adam and Eve ate in the Bible was a fig tree. There’s a fig tree in Devon Quinn’s Avondale greenhouse, but eating its fruit won’t lead to your expulsion from the garden of Eden; in fact, depending on the time of year, there’s a good chance its figs will be on the menu at Eden, Quinn’s restaurant.
Quinn is the chief culinary officer of the hospitality company The Paramount Group, which provides catering and staffing through several brands and runs Eden. He also runs and maintains the greenhouse that provides the restaurant and TPG with plenty of tasty plants for their menus.
Among them is Esmee arugula, which has less legendary resonance than the fig, but Quinn adores it so much that he often rhapsodizes about it to customers and clients. “I talk about stuff like, this arugula is really important to us, it’s really robust in flavor, it’s lobe-y, it’s got the right sugar level, it holds dressing well, it’s not so wimpy,” he says. “And then I have to deliver that.”
A whole crop of arugula could easily be wiped out by a pest or weather, but TPG has events and businesses and a large restaurant to supply, so Quinn has several local sources for his beloved plant, including his greenhouse.
The greenhouse, which he and a contractor friend built from a kit, is located next to the Chicago River some 500 feet from the restaurant, across Roscoe Street and through a parking lot. Inside, in wooden boxes constructed by Quinn, grows Esmee arugula, among many other edible plants. They’re all watered from a huge tank that is lugged across the parking lot on a pallet jack, grown from seeds, tended, and harvested by Quinn and a young TPG chef named Ambria Wilson.
It’s no wonder the arugula is important to him.
It’s not just the labor he puts in to grow it himself—he also gets arugula from the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm up the river as well as other local farms. It’s the connection to a local, sustainable product. “I’m not a great salesperson if I don’t care about what I’m doing,” he says. A mass market carrot is “different than if I’m going to the market and I’m able to handpick carrots from Nichols Farm or something. I can talk to the farmer about it, or I can grow a product myself. It’s just about that connection from earth to plate.”
Quinn’s food at Eden is seasonal and produce-focused, with dishes like berbere-spiced carrots (recently named one of Chicago magazine’s favorite dishes), vadouvan beets, grilled salmon with kohlrabi and rye berries, and wild mushroom farro risotto (try his recipe for the risotto). Plants from the greenhouse end up on many plates, as well as inked onto Quinn’s arm in the form of a sleeve of botanical tattoos.
Blossoms such as cosmos and Egyptian star flower provide color to a plate, while red ribbon sorrel and oxalis are a source of “nice little sour pops like a green apple,” says Quinn. There is a cornucopia of herbs: varieties of basil, oregano, anise hyssop, lavender, thyme, cilantro, verbena, parsley. Spinach not only offers a leafy green but also attractive plant tops to beautify a dish. Quinn gets three growths out of his pea plants, a limited amount of cherry tomatoes, and about three harvests of fruit from his eight year-old fig tree.
The greenhouse provides the majority of garnishes and herbs for both Eden and TPG’s catering business, and Quinn prides TPG on providing fresh and local ingredients even for large events. Even when feeding a thousand people, fresh herbs are better than “either not putting herbs in or chopping some parsley that’s been refrigerated for two weeks,” he says. “It makes a huge difference in the aromatic quality of things and how the guest experiences that.”
As with most well-tended gardens, the greenhouse is “an ongoing experiment” to see what varietals flourish (or don’t) in different locations or orientations. An adjunct structure built by Quinn and his father last winter provides outdoor growing space that is still protected in the winter by plastic and from the hottest days of summer by shade cloth. He wants to eventually add a place to grow mushrooms, whether it’s an expensive purchased house or something retrofitted out of a refrigerated truck. “The goal is to grow more and more internally, for our own operation,” he says. “Hopefully we can take percentages off what we’re purchasing from the outside.”
While the economics of growing TPG’s own supply of agricultural products make sense, Quinn also just seems to love to garden, and has built his own private little eden.
His mother and grandfather had extensive gardens, and he grew up in Traverse City, Michigan, near a lot of fruit farms—but his father was a surgeon, so unlike a lot of his schoolmates Quinn “never had to get my hands dirty on a farm.”
He studied biology before working for the catering company of an aunt and uncle in Southern California because he couldn’t find a job he wanted. He and his brothers had served food to his mother’s etiquette courses starting when they were 14, and he was bartending at resorts by the age of 18, so he had experience in the business. He liked the catering work, and eventually decided to go to culinary school. He ended up at TPG, which was founded by his wife, Jodi Fyfe, after he worked in several acclaimed kitchens and at various caterers.
Eden opened in the West Loop in late 2016; it closed during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, and Fyfe and Quinn eventually moved it and TPG to their current property in Avondale. They reopened the restaurant as an all-day cafe with breakfast, lunch, pastries, and coffee in the summer of last year and added dinner service later that year.
One of the appeals of the new property was the possibility of building a larger greenhouse than Quinn had had at the West Loop location. (The restaurant has done better in this location, according to Quinn, and TPG is also continuing to expand: they recently signed a lease to take over more space at their current location.) While Wilson handles most of the gruntwork in the greenhouse, Quinn spends half an hour to an hour a day there—and he also likes to come in on his days off, pruning and tending his plants, sometimes with his dog, a mini goldendoodle.
Running the greenhouse allows Quinn to once again use the skills he learned studying biology, and he relishes “getting scientific about the growing stuff.” The garden is organic, so he and Wilson fertilize it with liquid fish and liquid seaweed and “fight insects with insects,” introducing nematodes and ladybugs to eat pests. TPG composts, and tries to source as many ingredients locally as possible, including from organizations like the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm up the river in Albany Park, which provides land and training to refugee farmers, who then sell some produce to restaurants such as Eden in addition to growing it for themselves.
Another major source of produce for TPG is the Green City Market, for which Fyfe is a board member. Growing his own ingredients in TPG’s greenhouse has given Quinn a greater appreciation for the work of the farmers who sell at the market, some of whose farms are located near where he spent his childhood, in northern Michigan. “It’s amazing how hardworking these men and women are, and how much they care about what they’re doing,” he says. “Think about waking up at 3:00 in the morning on a market day, loading all your stuff up, and you have things like squashes, which are extremely, extremely heavy. They're coming out when it's pouring rain, they're coming out when it's snowing at times. They're badasses!”
Try Devon Quinn's recipe for mushroom farro risotto.