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The French Laundry’s Head Culinary Gardener and Renowned Seed Keeper to Present at Conference & Campout

Aaron Keefer is the Head Culinary Gardener for Chef Thomas Keller’s three-acre garden across the street from The French Laundry in Yountville, California.

Aaron is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and worked as a chef at The French Laundry, in California’s Napa Valley. He realized that the best day of every week was the one he spent working in the garden, inspiring him to shift his course from the kitchen to the farm.

As Head Culinary Gardener, he collaborates on a daily basis with each of Chef Keller’s culinary teams across the country to ensure that they receive only the very best produce possible from the garden. Today the garden includes a chicken coop, four beehives, escargot farm, hoop house, seed room and a ferment room.

Washing harvest, photo courtesy The French Laundry

At this year’s Conference & Campout Aaron will be sharing the details of his close working relationship with the chefs at the three-starred Michelin restaurant, as well as the invaluable role seeds play in the restaurant’s nine-course tasting menu, which changes daily.

Rowen White is a Seed Keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and a passionate activist for seed sovereignty. She is the director and founder of Sierra Seeds, an innovative organic seed cooperative focusing on local seed production and education, based in Nevada City, California.

Rowen has a deep and spiritual connection to her ancestral seed collection – sacred ‘Mohawk Red’ bread corn that resembles juicy pomegranate gems; ‘Six Nations’ blue corn whose kernels that line up in neat rows of shades of grey, slate, and nearly purple; multi-colored ‘Seneca Calico’ corn whose pearlescent seed-coats catch the light of the eastern morning; jars of beans, some speckled and resembling birds eggs, others earthy and mimic soft buckskin.

White honors the seeds and foods that have fed her ancestors for generations in the Northeast woodlands. A Mohawk woman, from a small community called Akwesasne which sits upon the banks of the St. Lawrence River straddling the New York/Canadian border. Her tribe is one of six nations that make up the Iroquois confederacy, yet they identify not as Iroquois but as Haudenosaunee: People of the Longhouse.

Well known for their unique agricultural planting methods, commonly known as “Three Sisters”, they practice a polyculture planting method of corn, beans, and squash that reinforces the collaborative nature of inter-planting allowing crop types work together in harmony.

White always had an affinity for the garden, and at 17 began to apprentice on an organic farm. Here,she began to learn about the importance of biodiversity, and learned about heirloom seeds for the first time. Knowing her ancestors were agricultural people, she began to wonder:

Who was still growing her tribe’s heritage seeds? What sorts of corn, beans and squash varieties were out there that had been planted and selected within “Three Sisters” polyculture over the last centuries?

Her journey is a rich tale of – gathering seeds and stories from the few remaining traditional gardeners, following the path of seeds and traditional foods and coming home to understanding the cultural dimensions of biodiversity.

From her journey came a the sense of responsibility she felt for her generation to step up and care for these seeds, as so many had done before her.

White will close out the 2016 Conference & Campout as our final speaker of the event, where she will share her journey and the discoveries she made along the way.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

French Laundry Culinary Gardener Aaron Keefer Speaks on the Generous Tomato

I feel the tomato is the most generous plant of the summer. It always amazes me at how much product can come from a seed the size of a pencil head!

Here in Napa Valley, we have mild winters that are governed by the Pacific Ocean. We occasionally get frost at night, but during the day the frost yields to temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s. Because of these cold nights, we have a hoop house that acts as a buffer for the climate. The hoop house is designed to retain solar heat, giving us temperatures much higher than the day’s high. On sunny winter days, the temperature in the hoop house can reach the high 80’s even when it is 50 degrees outside! To best utilize the hoop house, we keep its sides and ends open during the middle of the day to encourage ventilation and close the hoop house mid-afternoon to capture the last of the day’s solar energy. This allows us to get a good head start on the summer crops.

We start our tomato seeds around February 15 on heating pads so the plants never dip below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. After a few weeks of growing these starts, they are transplanted into larger containers where we let them grow to be 18 inches tall before we plant them in the ground. We aim for an outdoor planting date of April 15, that way there is little chance of a late frost that will damage the first set of flowers and drop the fruit. Tomato plants that go through a frost might survive but will usually be slowed enough that a smaller plant planted after first frost will outperform the first tomato in the long run.

Once the plants are in the ground, there needs to be a plan for the massive weight that will come. Non-determinate tomatoes are vines that can stretch for days, and they need to be supported off the ground so that the fruit does not become diseased. We employ a trellising method called the Florida weave. Under this model, we pound 8 foot t-stakes 3 feet into the ground at 8 foot intervals and weave twine in a figure eight pattern around the plants, tying then all together along with the line of posts. Every week, or with every 6 inches of growth, we repeat the weave so that the tomatoes stay supported even when there are hundreds of pounds of vine and tomato fruit between each post set. This trellising method also benefits the tomato plants by allowing for shading, which cuts down the number of sunburnt fruit.

This year, we are growing 52 varieties of tomatoes and our yield is amazing! The peak of our season lasts 4-5 weeks but if the rains hold off, we can harvest tomatoes until mid-October here in Napa.

French Laundry Culinary Gardner Aaron Keefer is our keynote speaker at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello – September 12-13, 2015. Don’t miss him!