There’s a pretty good chance that the home association’s “Yard of the Month” sign will never grace our front lawn any time in the near future.
We are not lawn people. We are food people.
No one would ever guess that behind our fence is an entire backyard of garden beds and walkways. We have great aspirations of learning to plant native pollinator species and “foodscape” this space. We have a mission and empty garden beds. A lot of empty garden beds.
Clearly we could use some advice.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Lidia’s Chef de Cuisine Cody Hogan, who is not only one of the best people around to ask about ingredients and cooking, but he has one of Kansas City’s most amazing “foodscape” gardens and a shared passion for Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden where he will be preparing the meal for their signature fundraising event, Under a Harvest Moon on Sept. 18.
He offered some good advice for those of us who are more excited by fennel and zucchini than fescue and zoysia.
Q: You’ve probably done more chef demos and events at Powell than any other chef in Kansas City. What’s the connection for you with Powell Gardens?
Cody Hogan: I love to garden, and Powell Gardens has been a source of inspiration for me for many years. I honestly don’t remember when I started visiting, but it was at least 15 years ago. The cooking demos came out of the introduction of the Heartland Harvest Garden, which I find especially inspiring. The garden is a great way to connect people to their food and how it grows. The cooking demos provide a natural extension for people to learn what to do with ingredients that are growing in their own gardens, or that they find at a farmers’ market.
Q: Your backyard is a bit of Powell Gardens, and a tremendous amount of your creativity and vision. How does your connection to growing so many of your ingredients yourself inspire how you cook?
CH: I’ve been fortunate to work closely with Lidia Bastianich for almost 18 years, and I have learned a tremendous repertoire of recipes for vegetables from her. Those are many of my go-to recipes. But when I want some different flavors, I can step out into the garden and pick cilantro, tarragon, okra, red Chinese long beans, Armenian cucumbers or whatever. Those plants take me into different cuisines from all over the world.
Q: How does your work as a chef influence the varieties of plants you grow? What are you preparing with them?
CH: Originally, I used the garden as a testing ground for new varieties of Italian vegetables to use at the restaurant, for plants that I could suggest to area farmers to grow. Now that many of those plants are available, I tend to grow more of the things I love to use at home and to make gifts for friends and family. This summer I have been wild about peppers: Shishito, Cubanelle, Cayenne, Thai, jalapeno, Fresno, Serrano, banana, Anaheim, Poblano, and cherry to name a few. Many of these are great for stuffing in countless ways, but I especially love pickling and making spicy jams and relishes out of them.
Q: Which came first for you, cooking or gardening?
CH: As a child, I guess cooking came first, sitting on the kitchen counter while my grandmother cooked, doing whatever appropriate things I could do to help, like tasting. But both sets of grandparents had gardens, one large and one small (just some old wash tubs with tomatoes), and I started my own first garden my senior year in high school, inspired by my first gardening book, Better Homes and Gardens’ “Complete Guide to Gardening.” In college I worked at a landscape design nursery.
Q: You’re offering a personal dinner in your amazing garden as an auction item for Under a Harvest Moon. Can you tell us a bit about that event? When you planned your garden space, what did you consider in the plan for hosting events and dinners in the space?
CH: That item is a dinner for eight, much of it coming from the wood-fired oven. The original garden concept was certainly not as an event space, and had a single seating area for outdoor dining. Over the years, that has evolved into multiple areas, all of them intimate and relaxed.
Q: What advice would you give to home gardeners about incorporating food and entertaining into their garden planning? What is most important to consider?
CH: If you have the space, and it doesn’t take much, try to have a table — which can double as your garden work bench — and a few chairs where you can relax with friends and enjoy cocktails and a few bites or even dinner.
I’ve had some of my most memorable meals in Italy, where al fresco dining is commonplace, in small outdoor spaces where nothing was fancy or “matched.” The most important thing is the company, and making them feel special and attended to. Also, the closer to the kitchen the space is, the more convenient and the more likely you will actually use your space.
Q: Do you have tips to share for outdoor entertaining?
CH: Again, keep it simple. Whenever you entertain, always plan ahead and try to have as much prep done as possible so you can enjoy your guests. And if you have some things to use from your own garden, even if it’s just herbs from a pot, it makes the meal seem more “of the place.” And always have a backup plan for inclement weather.
Q: How does the unpredictability of seasons and outdoors affect your approach to planning an event and preparing a menu and hosting?
CH: If there’s one thing I’ve learned at Powell Gardens, it’s the unpredictability of Midwestern weather. I’ve done cooking demos there where it was so windy that the flour for making pasta dough would blow off of the table before I could even crack an egg into it, and I once hosted a small dinner there where we had to move the entire dinner table to the other end of the space because of torrential blowing rains. And five minutes later the sun was back out. Cooking with the seasons and outdoor entertaining always require a degree of patience and flexibility.
Q: What is it about Powell Gardens’ Heartland Harvest Garden that inspires you most?
CH: Of course I love seeing (and tasting) all of the varieties of plants that can grow in our area, but I think seeing the guests and children and volunteers devoting time from their busy lives to be a part of something so essential and grounding to our human experience — I mean growing foods and eating for reasons beyond just fueling the body — that it inspires me to do the best I can with the tools I have been given as a chef.
Q: It seems like many diners expect farm-to-table sourcing from better restaurants, but it’s not as easy as many think to do this. Can you share some of the challenges and benefits of this approach?
CH: The most challenging aspects are consistency and availability of products. Restaurant patrons expect consistency in the menu. When dealing with local farms, they are subject to the sometimes crazy weather I mentioned before, and that can quickly affect the availability of ingredients. The benefits are numerous: freshness and variety, inspiration, flavor etc.
Cody Hogan will return to Powell Gardens as the chef for their signature fundraising event, Under a Harvest Moon, at 5 p.m. Sept. 18. Proceeds from the event fund youth education programs at Powell Gardens, where children learn firsthand about healthy eating by planting, growing, harvesting and preparing fresh food. Tickets and information about the event are available online at https://www.powellgardens.org/harvestmoon
Beth Bader is a cook, local food advocate, co-author of the book “The Cleaner Plate Club,” and a member of the board for Powell Gardens.