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Chef Steven Nalls of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts: 5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Successful Vegetable Garden To Grow Your Own Food

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Make it Beautiful — If you don’t enjoy it you probably won’t do it. While there are many benefits to planting flowers in your garden like attracting beneficial insects, I feel the look of a well maintained garden with all of its colors and flavors is soothing.

As we all know, inflation has really increased the price of food. Many people have turned to home gardening to grow their own food. Many have tried this and have been really successful. But others struggle to produce food in their own garden. What do you need to know to create a successful vegetable garden to grow your own food? In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Successful Vegetable Garden To Grow Your Own Food” we are talking to experts in vegetable gardening who can share stories and insights from their experiences.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Steven Nalls.

Chef Steven Nalls is a professional chef and burgeoning farmer. While working as a Culinary Instructor for Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, CO he also manages an 80 acre regenerative agriculture farm in the northern front range of Colorado. With his family, including three daughters, they are feeding themselves and others with “heritage breeds and old seeds” at Three Sisters Farm & Ranch, LLC.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

My first job was in a fast-food restaurant at age 16. I continued to have front-of-the-house jobs until I went to college to study mechanical engineering and I also decided to switch from FOH to the kitchen to help pay the bills. It didn’t take long until I realized that I wasn’t interested in the thermodynamics of an I-beam; it was the thermodynamics of a saute pan that excited me. I decided to move from Texas to Pasadena, CA to go to culinary school. After working in the hospitality industry for 15 years in Texas, California and Hawaii, I became a Chef Instructor in Boulder, CO as I started a family. Two months after starting at Escoffier in Boulder my wife and I had our first daughter, Quinn (11 yrs old now). As I was teaching Farm to Table classes at Escoffier, touring local farms, and learning about the importance of knowing where your food comes from, my wife and I made the decision to purchase some land to begin a homestead and to have our kids grow up in a pastoral environment and lifestyle. The timing was a challenge but we closed on 80 acres in the northern front range of Colorado and had twins (Nora and Alexis, 5 yrs old now) the same week. Christmas week of 2016! With the three girls and the desire to begin a regenerative agriculture business we decided to name our new homestead as Three Sisters Farm & Ranch. We now have many heritage breed animals: highland cattle, Icelandic sheep, goats (weedeaters), alpacas (lamb protectors), American bresse meat chickens, turkeys, egg chickens of many types and ¼ acre mixed vegetable production.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I was teaching the Farm to Table Class at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts school in Boulder and we were scheduled to work at Black Cat Farms that day. It was in the deep of winter and there was a storm, so we would normally have rescheduled, but the storm tore down their electric fencing, letting their pigs loose. My class was prepared for the weather and eager to help. The class and I wrangled pigs, stomped snow around the fencing (a few snow angels were made in the fun of it) and helped the farm owners set up the fencing to contain them. Everyone rallied and shared warm clothes and I saw my class become a team.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

-Willingness and eagerness to try new things

My mother was a west Texas girl with a best friend that was Hawaiian. I grew up eating beef liver and tongue one week and Tako (Hawaiian for octopus) another week. Don’t be afraid to try things because they can often be delicious. When one of my past students brought in balut eggs for the class to try I was happy to lead the wary students in trying it first. It’s tastier than it sounds.

-Calm & Confident

When the board on the pass is overwhelming you need to learn how to attack the problem in a calm and confident manner. I’ve found that a lot of the same things that I learned in the kitchen can transfer to the farm. If it’s overwhelming you can eat that elephant in a lot of small bites. The animals require calmness to be worked ethically and efficiently and the weeds can intimidate your confidence regularly.

-Personable & Professional

Be on time and talk to everyone as if they are your genuine friend. Getting the job of carving the pig at the Hotel’s luau requires these attributes. The hospitality and the skills of cooking a whole hog paid off even more later in life. When my family moved to our new 80 acres one of the first things I did was throw a party for the neighbors to help them get to know us. We now have great neighbors with local agriculture knowledge, equipment help, and loads of other kids to play with ours.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I try to end class with a food related or team related quote for the first couple of weeks of that block. I have many favorites that apply to a variety of situations. The quote that I go to most often while learning how to manage 80 acres of diverse species, my own species (three farm girls), and many “learning opportunities” is from Albert Einstein. “Failure is success in progress.”

Are you working on any interesting or exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

For a little over 5 years our farm has been more of a homestead (which the learning curve has been nothing more than exciting and exhausting) than a business that feeds many others. However, our livestock skills and numbers are growing, our systems of growing produce are improving, the bees are still making honey, and we are getting close to a point where we can begin to bring these products to our local community through a CSA (community supported agriculture) and farmers markets.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about creating a successful garden to grow your own food. Can you help articulate a few reasons why people should be interested in making their own vegetable garden? For example, how is it better for our health? For the environment? For our wallet?

Flavor has always been my number one goal in gardening. There is rarely a tomato at the store that tastes like the one from your garden. In my journey learning about the beginnings of our food system I have found out that nutrition and flavor are also related. The healthier the soil, the healthier the plant, the healthier the animal (us or livestock), and almost always also the tastiest.

Variety was another goal of mine. There are so many different colors, flavors, textures, of all the produce that we like to eat. However, rarely is that variety found at the supermarkets. One of my ways of choosing varieties of vegetables to grow is to use slow foods Arc of Taste resource. Using old varieties of plants that were saved (selectively bred) for flavor can help preserve our genetic diversity of the most delicious varieties of plants around the world.

Food security has become a very important aspect of growing your own food. When Covid first began I didn’t leave the farm much. When the stores were bare we had enough to not be overly worried. I felt overwhelmingly confident that we had made the right decision to buy a farm while having twins.

Where should someone start if they would like to start a garden? Which resources would you recommend? Which plants should they start with?

There are so many great resources out there to help you learn about your garden. The books are endless and the videos can use up your battery pretty quickly. Your state’s university extension services are great for regional specifics, soil sampling, and university researched information. Colorado States extension link is great for high altitude canning and baking or how to prune fruit trees, etc. https://extension.colostate.edu/

When it comes to building your garden it depends on your own situation so talk to your local nursery, or make friends at your local community garden to learn more about your local growing zone and conditions. Start small and grow the plants that you eat the most first. As you catch the bug it will be hard not to want to keep expanding your space and your varieties. Be careful not to go too big early on. I realized very quickly that gardening a 500 square foot garden is very different from farming and you need to have systems in place and knowledge gained before expanding too quickly.

Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Successful Vegetable Garden To Grow Your Own Food”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Test Your Soil — great soil nutrition equals great plant nutrition. Healthier plants resist pests and in my experience are the tastiest. Start by getting a soil test to know where your soil stands. You can start simple and get the pH and Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium levels or you can get really into it and find out organic matter percentage, 20 plus minerals/nutrients levels, microbial activity etc. Either way, know what you’re starting with so that you can learn what it needs to be healthy, good draining, nutritious soil.

Know your climate — you can find your plant hardiness growing zone with https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/ Once you know your zone you can start to learn about your microclimates of your area. Some plants love shade and some love full sun. Planting in front of a south facing wall in the northern U.S. will help protect from early frosts and encourage early growth in the spring. Try to choose the plants that you love to eat that also love your climate.

Establish Techniques and Methods — Weed control, pest control, and watering systems are a few of the major systems you will need to learn and build. There are many methods and ideals to consider. Should I use pesticides or should I buy some ladybugs? There isn’t one system to rule them all due to everyone’s own different situation. Learn and experiment to find out what works best for you.

Make it Beautiful — If you don’t enjoy it you probably won’t do it. While there are many benefits to planting flowers in your garden like attracting beneficial insects, I feel the look of a well maintained garden with all of its colors and flavors is soothing.

Share your Excess — This is one of my favorite parts and can really help build your community. We preserve as much as we can and give out to our neighbors or as gifts to friends and extended family. When we are overwhelmed with summer squash we make zucchini bread for the neighborhood. Donate to a food bank or join a seed saving/sharing club. This also happens to be a great way to test products and markets for future expansion if you desire.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a garden? What specifically can be done to avoid those errors?

I think one of the most common early mistakes that I’ve made and seen others make is too much. Too much space, too many plants, too much fertilizer, too much water. It’s easy to get into the mindset that if one thing is good more would be better. Try to start small so that you can manage it and not get overwhelmed. Make small changes as you learn. As you learn your systems and your climate your production will increase without having to increase in space necessarily.

What are some of the best ways to keep the costs of gardening down?

Start from seed. Growing your own plant starts can save you a lot of money and allows you more options in varieties.

Water wisely. Use mulch, drip tape, or whatever system is best for your environment. This is less of an issue in the east but here in the west water is one of the most difficult aspects to manage.

Compost. Not only is recycling your food and yard waste better for the environment, it can help create excellent soil without having to buy nutrition from outside sources.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I feel that my exposure to culinary students while teaching at Escoffier is a way to spread my passion to many future culinarians. My hope is that by following the regenerative agriculture and local food movements out there already that I can do my part in bringing tasty and nutritious food to others. My desire is that my three daughters take the things that they learn living out here and make important contributions in their own way in the future.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

So many great chefs and awesome farmers out there it’s like asking me “what is my favorite song?”.

Chef Choice: Magnus Nilsson

Farmer Choice: Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’d recommend sharing the escoffier.edu site to learn more about culinary education options as well as localharavest.org as a resource to find local producers. We are still working on our website and our social media presence is minimal. Once we move from homestead to CSA/Market Farm in a year or so you can find us at the local farmers market.

Thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success and good health.

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