If you get to upscale West Columbia restaurant Terra at the right time of day, you might see Chef Mike Davis carrying a basket full of the day’s pickings, dirt still clinging to the purple and orange carrots before they make their way onto someone’s plate.
When it comes to getting your hands dirty in all aspects of a business, there’s no better way to do it than to roll up your sleeves and actually put your hands in the soil. Davis does just that by including vegetables that come from the backyard on the Terra menu.
But Davis isn’t the only restaurateur in the family. His father-in-law is Bobby Williams, CEO of Lizard’s Thicket, a casual Southern family restaurant with 14 locations in the Midlands. The two have a unique relationship fertilized by a love of sharing good food. In addition to a lifelong commitment to the restaurant business, they also tend a garden together in the backyard of the Williams family home.
They began the garden about four years ago when Williams saw other restaurateurs showcasing their use of heirloom tomatoes at the Palmetto Tasty Tomato Festival. He became curious about how he could enjoy garden tomatoes more often.
Following the festival, Williams cleared out a portion of his yard to build a garden that started out with heirloom tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, blueberries, corn, carrots, squash and other vegetables. But mostly they got into it for the tomatoes, Williams says.
“We always seem to try a few things differently, and it’s funny which ones tend to be the bumper crop,” Davis says. “We’ve really learned together as the seasons go what things work and what don’t.”
While what they grow is a significant amount of vegetables for a backyard garden, it is often more than the family can eat themselves, so the extra fruits and vegetables from the 6-by-150-foot plot then make their way onto the plates of diners at Terra. Most of the homegrown produce ends up as a garnish or to add a little extra flair to the meal. Ten percent or less of the menu comes from the garden, Davis says.
“But when something comes all the way in, we might have enough beets for a week’s worth of salads, so you can see that it doesn’t make up a large portion of the menu,” he says.
Though their efforts don’t fulfill all of Terra’s produce needs, rooting around in the garden is relaxing and satisfying for both Davis and Williams. It also makes them feel good about what they are doing.
“Dabbling in backyard gardening really makes you respect the people that farm for a living who produce the food we use here,” Davis says.
But it can be tough work, and heartbreaking as well.
“You can do everything right and then the weather can come in and ruin it for you,” Williams says.
Even before they knew the toil of working the land themselves, using local vendors and buying seasonally has always been important to both restaurateurs.
“We’ve always used local producers [at Lizard’s Thicket], even before it was in vogue, and are happy to do it,” Williams says. “We’re probably Adluh’s biggest customer.”
Through planning and growing themselves, Davis and Williams have come to appreciate the seasonality of produce even more and the difference in food that is picked and used within a very short time frame.
“You can buy anything grown in China or South America and call it what it is, but the taste is not there,” Williams says. “That’s why it’s in season — because it’s at its optimum taste.”
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