By Nadine Zylberberg
Niven Patel has spent a decade cooking American and Italian food at restaurants in South Florida. In 2017, he opened Ghee Indian Kitchen, sourcing many of the ingredients from Ranchopatel, his own backyard farm in Homestead. Patel had three new restaurant concepts in the works before the coronavirus crisis disrupted the entire hospitality community. He still picks fresh vegetables from Ranchopatel every day and cooks Indian food for takeout.
At first, I never wanted my own restaurant because I saw all the stresses and the perils of restaurateur-ing. About five years ago, when I was working at Michael’s Genuine, I had a bunch of industry chefs and friends over at the house. At that time, I’d just started a little bit of what our farm is now, and I cooked a simple meal. I served what we ate every day, Gujarati style, which is where my ancestors are from. And everyone that came said, “We’ve never had Indian food like this. This is amazing.”
That one dinner put the idea in my head that there’s a space out there for us to do something like this.
I was already growing a little bit for Michael’s Genuine—obviously not at the level we are now. It was more like one or two harvests a year. We would put it on the menu and sell out in a day. That’s three months of growing for one day on the menu!
We had about six 40-foot beds when we first started this. Now we have about 120. So it’s grown exponentially. It’s my zen zone. After all the madness of restaurant life, it’s great to be out there. It’s about 45 minutes south of Miami. It’s a little more rural and quiet and keeps me sane.
In the first year, like any chef would do, I went through all of these seed catalogs and ordered 240 varieties of vegetables and plants and went crazy. I have no farming background at all. I’m a very hands-on kind of learner. So we just put everything in the ground. Obviously, only 20% of it worked because the climate in South Florida is very harsh, and we do everything organically. It was three years of learning how to deal with pests and irrigation and soil.
Now we’re in our seventh year of growing, and we’ve honed it down to 35 to 40 vegetable varieties that we know work. For example, we all want those big beautiful heirloom tomatoes, but in our environment, if you don’t spray, there’s no way the bugs are not going to eat them. So we’ve honed it down to Sungolds and this variety called Everglades tomato, which is indigenous to South Florida. It’s meant to grow down here.
In the ground right now, we have karo leaves, fennel, three different types of heirloom carrots, two types of turnips, all the herbs — basil, mint, parsley, cilantro — beets, four different types of kale, collard greens, Romano beans, I can keep going. We also have lychee trees, mango trees, avocado trees. We have a 70-foot passionfruit trellis.
Of the last two weeks, yesterday was the first day where I told myself, “I’m just going to relax a little bit.” And in my head, I was like, “What am I going to do all day long?” A farmer that I’m good friends with called me up and said, “We’re shutting down two months early. We’re going to be pulling up everything in the next two or three days, if you want to come by and pick whatever you want.” It’s peak growing season right now, so I went there and picked probably 500 pounds of tomatoes that we’re going to preserve for the Italian concept we’re opening up.
I spent some time in Italy, and I love making pasta so we were starting a pasta concept called Erba, but now it’s postponed. I figured, let me just grab all the tomatoes and we’ll can everything and use it when that restaurant opens up. I spent seven hours in the field yesterday picking.
The last eight months, I’ve been very focused on the growth of our company. I have an awesome team that’s been handling the day-to-day cooking. But in the last two weeks, I’ve been back in the kitchen, and it’s rekindled all that energy that I was losing just trying to grow the business. It’s been fun every day just picking and cooking. There’s a lot of adaptation to it, but the quality of product that we get to work with every day is awesome because everything’s handpicked for perfection.
Right now, it’s peak season, so I would say 50% of the menu is from the farm, which is quite a bit. Towards the summertime, it’s more like 20% or 30% because of the heat.
My favorite thing about the farm is pulling carrots, honestly. There’s something about pulling carrots that’s just so gratifying because you have no idea what to expect. You can see the top, but you have no idea how it’s going to look. Our soil is very rocky and coral, so they’re all different shapes and sizes and colors. It’s very gratifying for me.
I’m honestly living the dream. Or, I was living the dream. I don’t know about now.
When we first opened, it was just me and my mother-in-law cooking every day, teaching the team how to develop the layers of flavor that Indian food’s all about. The way we cook our food is very different from a lot of Indian restaurants. We’re very ingredient-driven, and we developed each stock, each vegetable, each week very differently. It’s not just one big pot cooking.
It’s a good balance, me and her. She hasn’t worked in professional kitchens, so she brings that home-style kind of rustic cooking, and I bring in more of the finesse and the touch.
My wife was the anchor of the whole front of the house. She handled everything there. My father-in-law was the first farmer. He and I would pick every day. We hired two full-time farmers, and he stepped back a little bit. But the farmers are laid off right now, so it’s like I just rewinded back three-and-a-half years to when we first opened up Ghee. It was basically all hands on deck to make it happen, just grinding it out every day. It’s that again.
It’s madness—a lot of emotions, obviously. When this crisis first started, I wanted to make sure we would have something to come back to when all this is over. The hardest decision was laying off our whole team. A lot of our staff are day-oners. They’ve been there right from the beginning—people who helped me paint the restaurant, develop the menu, who’ve seen us grow, all that. It was really difficult.
My goal right now is to keep Ghee, and all our other projects, alive for the reopening time, whenever that’s going to happen. So every day, I pick stuff from the farm, come to the restaurant, cook, and post the menu online. We serve for takeout and delivery until we sell out, trying to build up some type of reserve, so when we reopen, it’s a healthy bank account and restaurant instead of something that’s very highly in debt and most likely won’t survive.
I was hoping that the government would step in and help, which I think is happening now, with all the relief plans coming into effect. I’m hoping my staff and my team are going to at least survive off of that until we reopen. And then once we reopen, we’ll be ready to rock and roll.
The way my whole team has handled this situation made me feel really happy. Everyone just understood what needed to happen and they were like, “We’re going to be here for you after all this is over.” It was important for me.
We’ve had some loyal guests who’ve been with us since day one support us with very generous gift cards. The thing is, everyone’s in the same boat. Even our diners, everyone is in the same situation. We all need to help each other and if people can support us by ordering takeout, that’s all I can ask. Every industry, every person has been affected by this.
Right now, my wife, mother-in-law, and father-in-law are my core team. I also have one person that cooks with me every day.
This morning, I just finished picking some stuff at the farm. I’m going to the restaurant now and I think the first thing I’m making is a saag paneer with all our farm greens and all the tomatoes from the farm that I just picked. It’s going to have arugula, kale, collard greens, and Everglades tomatoes.