On June 21, Playa invited media types to climb a pair of ladders…after drinking seasonal cocktails. It was a tricky proposition, but led to a unique garden, which has eliminated their need to visit farmers markets. Earlier this year, chef-owner John Sedlar brought chef de cuisine Kevin Luzande to Florida to learn about aeroponic farming from Tower Garden inventor and former Epcot Center greenhouse manager Tim Blank. They’re now applying that knowledge to the rooftop garden and in turn to the modern Latin restaurant’s menu.
Luzande said they grow everything from seed, sourcing from Johnny’s Seed, which has a 99% germination rate and use imitation soil, more or less “loosely compressed insulation,” on the propagation table. Once the plants grow tall enough, and the roots reach deep enough, they transfer the plants to the white towers on the upper rooftop.
Luzande said they save significant money on microgreens. They’ll bring an entire tray, wash, pluck and plate right on the line, including amaranth, Rambo radish, and opal basil.
Luzande pointed to two barrels of necessary nutrients. “This barrel to the right is highly concentrated mineral salt and the barrel to the left is 1000 natural earth elements. Combine that with water, you get a perfect pH balance…This is the nutrients for our towers up there.”
We walked “up there” and arrived at the aeroponic towners. Luzande explained how they work, saying, “There’s fertilized water at the bottom, and there’s a water pump. The water goes up, the water goes down. There’s a pump in the middle that waters up, and it trickles down.” The towers run 10 minutes off, 3 minutes on, 24 hours a day.
We asked Luzande how they decide what to plant. He said, “I do whatever I want, but I have to do things that fit with our menu.”
Susan Hirasuna asked if Cielo Verde qualifies as organic. Luzande said, “It’s better than organic, because organic uses soil. This is soil-less. It’s aeroponic, so it doesn’t need pesticides, anything.”
He also attested to the health benefits of aeroponics, saying, “A lot of the lettuces and vegetables that you’re going to get up here are actually a lot healthier for you than from anywhere else because it’s fresh. For example, the cilantro you’re eating here today, the kale, the lettuces, were all picked today, so a lot of the nutrients are still inside. Usually, when you get vegetables, it’s been a couple days or weeks.”
Luzande walked us around the rooftop, pointing out shiso, cilantro, chives, cherry tomatoes, and beans (yellow, green and purple). He said black garbanzo beans proved to be useless, so they’ll swap the pods out for “something else that’s going to flourish, like kale.”
Luzande and Sedlar said they had no prior gardening experience, but, “As a chef, you know your vegetables, and it’s easy to grow” using aeroponics. He’s up on the rooftop daily, harvesting and giving plants like arugula a “haircut.”
He continued to proudly point out vegetables, including purple bok choy (pac choi), red romaine and red summer crisp lettuces, peaches and cream corn, green dwarf peas, cucumbers and padron peppers (“like shishitos, but twice as spicy”). They also grow decorative borage flowers, which used to cost him $15 for a two-ounce package.
Luzande originally kept track of everything via spreadsheet, but since he’s on the roof all the time, he prefers to eyeball everything.
After our tour, we saw how the garden’s aeroponic garden factored into Playa’s plates and glasses. For instance, Julian Cox, Josh Goldman and Jeremy Lake made garden driven cocktails, including Hulk el Incredible with tomatillo, cilantro, tequila, green chartreuse, lime and agave.
They also passed out small plates like kale tacos with caramelized onions and lardons. However, our batch of tacos arrived vegetarian-friendly at the request of another writer. Basically, Libby Platus bacon-blocked us.