Frohne, garden-to-table project winning over community
Chef Brandon Frohne kneels in the dirt of his 40-by-70-foot garden holding a squash blossom gently in his hand. Its yellow leaves are soft, drooping and flimsy to the touch. To the untrained eye, the thick yellow petals of the blossom look more like an unassuming roadside flower than a dish, like the first thing you would pull off your plate if you saw it on there.
But when Frohne, the Food and Beverage Director of The Dogwood Room, looks at it, he sees something different. In the dirt, he sees it on a plate, fried in tempura batter and stuffed with cola-braised pork and Gouda and served alongside a corn and white wine emulsion with pickled peaches.
The dish in Frohne’s head isn’t just an idea; it’s reality, thanks to an urban garden project he started earlier this year on the property of Park Manor, a retirement community in Belle Meade. In February, Frohne, 24, purchased garden supplies and enlisted volunteers to help launch the project, which began as two simple 10-by-30 plots before the 40-by-70 plot where he currently kneels completed phase one of the project.
“It’s kind of my little getaway,” he said. “I do a lot of cooking, but it can get pretty stressful in there, and this has become my escape.”
A native of Tampa, Fla. and a fourth-generation chef, Frohne left his restaurant background, which included a role as chef de cuisine at a Top 100 Zagat-rated restaurant, Six Tables, to come to Park Manor in 2007. A young and fast-rising chef, he was hesitant to make the switch—there aren’t many upcoming chefs building their reputations at retirement communities—but fell in love with the job immediately, he said.
“This is the first retirement senior living job I’ve had,” he said. “People are right off the bat easy to say, ‘Oh he’s a retirement home chef.’ But we’ve used this garden to build our reputation and get our name out there.
“I know where I’ve been and what I’ve done outside of this place. We’re making this place unique. All the guys who work for me I recruited from nice hotels and country clubs. None of our guys have worked in the senior living community, so we’ve been able to bring the upscale dining success here with that creativity.”
That reputation, despite the aging audience of 85 he cooks for every night, is still rising. He has won the People’s Choice Award at two events this year: Soup Sunday in March, and earlier this month at the Savor Nashville Shrimp and Grits Cookoff at the Hutton Hotel. In that event, Frohne bested nine of Nashville’s top chefs, including chefs from Capitol Grille, Watermark, F. Scott’s and Tayst, capturing the People’s favorite and placing second overall from a board of five James Beard Award-winning chef judges.
In fact, the challenges of Frohne’s job may be what is boosting his stock at all. It’s difficult cooking for an older audience, he says. Everyone’s palate is different, and as they age, it forces him to be more creative with the menu to recapture their tastes and attention.
“It’s much more difficult cooking for them,” he said. “As they get older, their tastes diminish so we like to use a lot of fresh stuff with intense flavor. It’s the hardest group of people I’ve ever cooked for, but 95 percent of our folks are satisfied so I think we’re doing a good job.”
In only four months, the garden is already proving to be an offshoot of that creativity. Originally started without management approval (“I could have been fired,” he says with a laugh), it was up to Frohne to convince his bosses why the idea, and the costs, would work. Less than half a year into the project, the radishes, tomatoes, squash, beets, carrots, buckwheat, green beans and lemon basil that are already rising from the dirt are proof enough that it is.
More importantly, however, are the residual effects the garden is having on the community. Though the garden is located just steps from Royal Oak Condominiums, management of that property has been so receptive to the idea that water runoff from their property is used to water the garden. Many of the volunteers, including the group of 10 helping Frohne weekly, are residents there.
“It would be cool to create some unity in all the founding aspects of this project coming together,” he said. “We’ve got volunteers, people who live here, and we’re creating unity in this community with everything coming together. There are so many benefits.”
The project is a microcosm of a greater movement Frohne hopes to foster in Nashville—a sustainability-focused, farm-to-table community that focuses on locally grown produce. Another way he has furthered those interests is through founding Nashville Urban Gardeners, a network of chefs, gardeners, food connoisseurs and others who are interested, as the group’s website states, in using sustainable initiatives “to elevate the current state of our food systems.”
It’s a movement he thinks can take root in Nashville. After moving here from Tampa, he noticed a much deeper interest here in farm-to-table principles.
That mindset, he said, will do more for just the residents of the city: it will elevate the reputation of the city itself.
“You read all these stories about rising chefs in New York, Chicago and L.A., and Nashville’s at that point now where these chefs are being recognized for their efforts,” he said. “All the cuisine is awesome. What’s cool about Nashville is that it seems like everybody here is really in tune with sustainability and farm-to-table. We’re definitely in an era now of building Nashville’s food scene. That’s what I’m trying to do.
“My opinion of Nashville is that it’s a growing food Mecca on its way to becoming a Chicago. I think with a few years we’re going to be there. If the restaurants and chefs come, you have to support the local eateries.”
Past the larger garden, down the hill from the two smaller gardens sprouting radishes and early tomato blossoms, is a trail that leads past a swing. It winds into the woods and opens at a large clearing—a sanctuary of a forest, with a large ceiling and open real estate as far as you can see.
It’s empty land—for now. But summer is for harvesting, and Frohne is filling the plates of his residents with the food he and his volunteers planted and tilled with their bare hands. Soon it will be time to plant again. Then grow.
When he looks out over the land, Frohne sees more than empty plots of land. Much like the squash blossom, he sees something bigger—a more complete picture of what can be. He sees future gardens, each one bigger than the last, planted and harvested by the people of his community, grown locally and fostering a sense of community in an area being brought together by vegetables and herbs.
It won’t take long, he says.
“The residents are happy, the community is helping, and next year pretty much everything we do will be a profit,” he said. “It’s great for Nashville.”