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With in-house gardens, restaurants take 'eat local' movement to the next step

Chef Niki Nakayama, of West Los Angeles' n/naka, harvests produce from her backyard garden at her San Gabriel home.
Chef Niki Nakayama, of West Los Angeles' n/naka, harvests produce from her backyard garden at her San Gabriel home.
Sonata Lee Narcisse
Chef Niki Nakayama, of West Los Angeles' n/naka, harvests produce from her backyard garden at her San Gabriel home.
Daniel Allen of Farmscape Gardens shows off a Kyoto red carrot grown behind chef Niki Nakayama's San Gabriel home
Sonata Lee Narcisse
Chef Niki Nakayama, of West Los Angeles' n/naka, harvests produce from her backyard garden at her San Gabriel home.
At the San Gabriel home of Chef Niki Nakayama, produce is harvested for her West Los Angeles restaurant, n/naka. Daniel Allen of home garden company Farmscape inspects the plants, vegetables and herbs.
Sonata Lee Narcisse

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As even more Los Angeles diners crave locally grown produce, several restaurants in Los Angeles meet the demand by growing their own fruits and vegetables in house. Off-Ramp contributor Sonata Lee Narcisse visited several restaurants--and their in house gardens.

In an area of about 180 square feet—literally her own backyard—Chef Niki Nakayama grows enough produce to feed a restaurant full of people. The fruit, vegetables and herbs she grows behind her San Gabriel home will eventually make their way to the plates of patrons in her Palms restaurant called n/naka. “These are going to be beans. Kodojoluko," said Nakayama. "Like long Japanese beans.”

The day I came to visit, Daniel Allen was there helping out. He works for Farmscape, a company that builds organic gardens for residential spaces, schools and restaurants. He helped Niki create this space. “And then I’d talk to her about what some of our standard crop offerings are," said Allen. "I think we mixed them together to come up with a good mix that is heavy in Japanese vegetables and herbs.”

n/naka is just one of several restaurants in the area growing its own fruits and vegetables. Post and Beam in Baldwin Hills, Playa in Mid-City and the Jonathan Club in downtown LA are all feeding guests from their own gardens. These restaurant gardens are part of a larger culinary movement that has already been established in parts of Europe and Asia.

“It’s definitely a trend we’ve been seeing," said Daniel Allen. "I think Niki was ahead of the game a little bit in starting her garden 3 years ago because especially this year we’re having a lot of restaurants approach us.”

Niki’s enthusiasm for farm to table cuisine bubbles over as we tour her garden--she reaches for a special variety of carrot. “This is like the original inspiration to grow my own vegetables because I’ve only seen them in Japan," she said. "I was like I can’t get those in America. We’ll just have to grow it!”

Using those kinds of speciality vegetables is key to n/naka’s dining experience. That means n/naka’s menu is based on what’s available in the garden at any given time. While offering a seasonal menu from a small backyard garden may be tough-- it’s where chef Niki’s creativity thrives. “I love it because when I see the garden and sometimes I have no idea," she said. "But I come out and something is ready and that ingredient just inspires the dish. And it’s perfect!”

Inside n/naka, Mariko Fujinami and 3 girlfriends have just completed a 9 course meal WITH wine pairings. Lobster, sashimi and mussels are just a few of the delicacies they dined on this evening. Their sashimi dish featured radishes fresh from the garden. And several courses were garnished with nasturtium -- an edible flower with a peppery flavor profile. But for Mariko, this is nothing new. She’s dined at the restaurant once a month since October 2011.

n/naka's garden is a big reason Fujinami keeps coming back. “I think she puts a lot of care and thought in every dish that she serves," she said. "I know her vegetables are -- most of them are grown by her. Organic. And you can taste that difference.“

With year round sun and moderate temperatures Los Angeles has the perfect climate for gardening but the city is little short on space. The Jonathan Club - a 117 year old private social club in downtown Los Angeles made do with their rooftop. The club’s general manager, Matthew Allnatt took me for a tour of their rooftop garden 12 stories above the ground and surrounded by half a dozen skyscrapers. The fruit trees, micrograins and herbs are planted in containers that share space with the club’s two tennis courts.

Allnatt said it’s important for the club to offer clientele fresh organic ingredients. But the motivation for the garden extends beyond business. He hopes the garden will help influence how people think about growing food downtown.

“Here we are, one of the great agricultural spots in the world," said Allnatt. "Year round we have this ability to grow anything we want. And why shouldn’t we be able to do that downtown?”

The Jonathan Club’s garden was met with some skepticism from veteran members and staff when it was put in 7 months ago. But they’ve become believers. And now, the club has drawn up plans to expand their garden.