Prima's Eliot and Jennifer Jackson-King: Chef Chat, part 1

The Kings work long hours to farm food for the restaurant each day.

The Kings work long hours to farm food for the restaurant each day.

There was a time when Prima's husband-and-wife team lived down the street from their neighborhood Italian restaurant. Now they're living on a farm outside the Cities, and the restaurant is reaping the benefits.

Chef Eliot King and his wife, Jennifer, are farming vegetables in the morning that make it onto the restaurant menu each night.

Read on to hear why the couple keeps peacocks at the farm, how the honey tastes out of the beehives, and what it takes to run a farm and restaurant simultaneously.

This is the first in a three-part series.

[jump] Now that you're farming in addition to cooking, how long is your average workday?

Eliot: Right now my typical day starts at about 6 in the morning. I'm out with the lettuces: cutting, reseeding, and watering. Then I come into work, and I work all day. Today I won't get home until 9 or 10 o'clock at night. During the week I try to get off at 3 or 4 o'clock, and if it's really hot then I need to re-water and check on the lettuces.
Typically on the farming end of it I spend about 25 to 30 hours a week. It makes for kind of a long week.

How did you decide to take on all these extra farming chores? Eliot: We have always farmed some tomatoes and zucchinis and cucumbers and other types of vegetables. Last summer, I was saying to myself, 'Well, I have a big field that we don't really do anything with except mow all summer. How can we make this useful and expand what we're growing?' I just haven't been thrilled with the lettuces and the greens that I've been getting out of California, especially the last two years. They just haven't been as nice as they used to be. I'm not sure exactly why.

The Prima kitchen uses the farm's honey in the "Almond-Crusted Ricotta Dolce."

The Prima kitchen uses the farm's honey in the "Almond-Crusted Ricotta Dolce."

It's kind of a test year to see how it's all going to go, and see whether we're going to expand it next year. It's been a hard year with the weather--really hot and really hard to grow lettuce, so it's been a learning experience.

How long have you lived on the farm in Waconia? Eliot: Ten years. We live on a 20-acre farm and have horses and chickens and other types of creatures running around.

Where did you live before? Jennifer: We lived right down the street on Lyndale. I'm a native Minnesotan and my husband's a New Yorker. We both moved here from San Francisco because we wanted to buy a house, and that was...

Eliot: 16 years ago.

Jennifer: We were going to have a child, and I always wanted her to have a somewhat rural upbringing, having had that myself. We didn't ever move out to the farm with the intention of raising food for our restaurant. It just kind of evolved.

You keep horses and chickens? Jennifer: Horses and chickens and peacocks, and we have 20 beehives to make our own wildflower honey. You feel like you have some ownership in the product, and certainly Eliot does. From planting, nurturing, harvesting, and cooking, he has total control over when it's picked, if the flavor's right, and if the texture's right. It's pretty cool.

Why do you keep peacocks? Jennifer: They add personality, and ironically, they're like the watchdogs of the farm. They're very astute to strange vehicles or strange creatures, and they make these horrible howling, screeching sounds when something not normal approaches. So they're kind of our bird-dog. I raised the female one myself. I took the eggs and put them in the incubator and turned them, and hatched them, and raised them in my kitchen in a little box with a light bulb.

Tell us about your beehives. Jennifer: We have a beekeeper that we partner with, and he also does all the pollination at the Minnetonka Apple Orchard. I think he has 600 or 800 hives around the metro, and 20 at our farm. Depending on where the bees live, the honey tastes different. Ours is wildflower honey, and it's delicate and soft and lovely.

How long have you used your own produce in the restaurant? Eliot: We've been using tomatoes and some vegetables for about five years.

Jennifer: We're realistic about what we can grow and use. I would not think that we could ever grow enough on our small family farm to supply what we need at this restaurant in its entirety. It's more of a specialized thing for us.

Eliot: It's also not what I do. I'm not so much the farmer as I am the chef. It's not like I want to spend all my time farming.

Jennifer: And we don't have outside labor at the farm either. It's all on us. It's been a rough year for tomatoes. They like dry heat. First it was cold for planting time, and then we had wet, damp weather, and then it became so humid and hot. Last year we did 400 pounds of heirloom tomatoes. I don't think we'll meet that this year--even with double the amount of plants that we're using.

What are the farm-to-table specials on the menu tonight? Eliot: Tonight I'm doing a salad with our greens, some baby carrots from our farm, and radishes from our farm. That's with a buttermilk poppyseed dressing. Tonight I'm also doing a sautéed walleye, and I've cut some little microgreens from some mustard and kale and red amaranth. I'm using our tomatoes and corn from our neighbor, topped in a little oil with lemon verbena that also comes from our farm.

Is it fun to create specials based on what's in season at home? Eliot: Some days I'm just waiting for stuff to grow--I'm like, 'Come on, you've got to be ready by the weekend!' This morning I went out to check on the lettuces before I came here to work, and I have a bunch of this braising mix, which has kale and mizuna and tatsoi and a bunch of little mustard greens. I've been waiting for that to grow, and [I decided] I can't wait. I'm just going to cut it for microgreens with my red amaranth and mix that together and use it. I kind of figure it out as it goes.