MICHAEL ANTHONY admires the butter lettuce he has been buying for the last month so much that he invented a salad for it. The $12 dish he serves at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan is also made up of pickled eggplant, ricotta, pickled cherries and heirloom tomatoes, but the greens are the star, and for good reason.
Often picked only several hours before arriving at his kitchen, four miles from the farm, the lettuce could not be more fresh, or local. It has just about all a demanding chef could ask, except one thing: dirt clinging to its roots.
The butter lettuce is grown at Gotham Greens, a new hydroponic garden in industrial Greenpoint that turns romantic notions of farming on their head. In a $2 million greenhouse, baby plants emerge from seeds embedded in tiny sponges made of fibers spun from volcanic basalt.
Water? It’s recycled so only 700 gallons are used per day, a 10th of that used in conventional farming. Soil? That’s replaced by thin films of nutrient-rich water sluicing down hundreds of plastic channels cradling the roots of salad greens, lettuces and culinary herbs.
The sleek garden that has improbably touched down on the roof of a huge two-story former bowling alley and light-manufacturing space is one of the largest commercial-scale hydroponic greenhouses in urban America providing pristine, sustainable produce for restaurants and high-end retailers.
Until recently, there have been two associations with hydroponics: 1. Marijuana, 2. No flavor. But state-of-the-art operations have won converts among chefs who venerate local produce and celebrate terroir. “This volume, and this level of expertise: this is something we haven’t seen before,” Mr. Anthony said of Gotham Greens produce. “They’ve taken it to another level.”
So far, hydroponic produce “doesn’t replace field-grown vegetables” in Gramercy Tavern’s kitchen, he said. For now, “it may be working in a supporting role.” And though the supply of products is year-round, and theoretically could subvert chefs’ increasing seasonal obsession, “it doesn’t really challenge our notion of seasonality,” Mr. Anthony added.
Yet to André de Waal, the chef and an owner of the haute André’s Restaurant in Newton, N.J., “it’s all a tradeoff.” He has been buying hydroponic veggies for a year from a small rural greenhouse 15 minutes away, and says that vegetables from California are more than three days old by the time they reach him.
“Given the choice between days-old produce grown in soil, and super-fresh hydroponic vegetables, I’d rather have the hydroponic,” Mr. de Waal said. “There is nothing quite like working with produce that is several hours old.”
Advocates for urban greenhouse produce have long touted the benefits of proximity, freshness, quality and job creation. “For certain crops, hydroponics can be a boon,” said John Magazino, president of Primizie Fine Foods in the Bronx, an upscale produce supplier that has sold hydroponic crops from nonurban suppliers to restaurants including Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. “Lettuces, chicories, endives and all the fresh herbs do extremely well. And if Gotham Greens can grow chervil, which isn’t easy to grow and doesn’t transport well, they will make a lot of New York chefs happy.”
Not everyone agrees. John O’Neil, a senior vice president in charge of purchasing produce at the Patina Restaurant Group, is a purist who rejects hydroponic products in the company’s restaurants like Lincoln Ristorante and La Fonda del Sol “because they look pretty but they are lacking in flavor,” he said. “I go for Mother Earth every time.”
Field crops, however, can also be taste-challenged because “they can be affected by too much rain or lack of rain, too much sun or lack of sun,” said Gene A. Giacomelli, a hydroponic designer who is a professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Arizona. For both field-grown and hydroponic produce, he said, taste can be a complex mix of genetics, plant cultivars (different species), growing conditions and agricultural management.
Mr. O’Neil of Patina is perhaps an unusual holdout in the high-end restaurant world, since many kitchens have long used supplemental hydroponic produce in months when dirt farms are dormant. Chefs rarely brag about it, however, given the supposed stigma of tastelessness.
But relatively local high-quality hydroponic produce has increasingly been available only recently, and “not only is the market for growing it,” Dr. Giacomelli said, “but the customer demand is there, and people are willing to spend more for it.”
Jenn Nelkin, the 32-year-old greenhouse director of Gotham Greens, said that “we create our nutrient recipes from scratch, and there is a different recipe for each plant.” Flavor, she added, comes from a variety of compounds that include sugars and essential oils, and “if it’s picked ripe, the flavor will be there as well.”
Certainly, not all dirt farmers are preparing to march upon Gotham Greens with guttering torches, aiming to put Ms. Nelkin’s head on a pike. In fact, “we use hydroponic method, drip irrigation and constant-feed formulas to extend our growing season,” said Richard Ball, the owner of Schoharie Valley Farms in Schoharie, N.Y., a pioneering specialty farmer who has long supplied high-end kitchens like those at Daniel and Per Se.
Nevertheless, he said, hydroponic growing “is capital-intensive and labor-intensive, and it requires sophisticated maintenance.” Roots in Mr. Ball’s bottom-land soil, rich in deep glacial deposits of silt loam, can drill down 10 feet or more. “I would argue hard that there is no question that you can tell the difference,” he said. “In theory, it makes sense that you can tweak the nutrients in hydroponic growing, but soils are too complex. Soil is a living thing. You can’t reproduce my soil in a hydroponic farm.”
Dr. Giacomelli said that “we may not know of every nutrient you get from the soil,” adding, “but in a taste test, often you can’t tell the difference” between hydroponic and field-grown crops.
Without question, modern hydroponic outfits display a growing degree of technological sophistication. While 25 employees at Gotham Greens propagate, hand-pick and hand-pack the produce at its 15,000-square-foot space, a rooftop weather station monitors wind, rain, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and light intensity. This data bonanza serves to regulate irrigation pumps, greenhouse vents, exhaust fans, gable shutters and shade curtains.
All this environmental hovering helps crops thrive without pesticides, fungicides or herbicides, and natural pest controls like parasitic wasps, lacewings and ladybugs are introduced to the 17-foot-tall greenhouse with its 75-foot-by-160-foot main production floor. And while all of the electronic data is displayed at the central computer on the rooftop at 810 Humboldt Street, Ms. Nelkin, who is also a business partner, can view it on her cellphone and can run the operation from anywhere on the planet.
The only old-time reality to intrude upon this futuristic reverie is the exotic perfume of the Lithuanian dark rye and the paczki (Polish doughnuts) from the ovens at Syrena Bakery, a Polish stalwart a block away.
According to Dr. Giacomelli, there are only a few American commercial-scale urban greenhouses like Gotham Greens. The farm’s projected yearly yield of 100 tons is but a minuscule slice of the more than 1.5 million tons imported into New York, the world’s largest agricultural market, and its output is even Lilliputian in comparison to that of “big hydro.” That is the inventory of vast commercial hydroponic operations in sparsely populated areas of Arizona, California and Texas, where land is cheap and greenhouses can stretch as much as 360 acres.
But, given global warming, drought, weather instability and runaway energy costs, hydroponic agriculture, with 10 times the field-crop yield, makes increasing sense. “We are all subject to limited resources on this planet,” Dr. Giacomelli said, “and we need to make greater efforts to feed more people with fewer and fewer resources.”
Viraj Puri, chief executive of Gotham Greens, said that “we’re sold out all the time, can’t grow enough,” adding that his produce has been available from Whole Foods as well as Fresh Direct and Eataly.
At Whole Foods, the recyclable clamshell packages sell for $3.99 (4.5 ounces of lettuce and 1.5 ounces of basil). This produce is so farm-to-fork that “it’s in some of our stores the same day it was harvested,” said Tristam Coffin, a manager for the chain’s Northeast region.
The notion of eating lettuce hours after it was picked would not have sounded strange at all to Jacob Meserole, an 18th-century Brooklyn farmer whose family was the namesake of the Greenpoint avenue that bounds one side of the Gotham Greens spread. For the moment, the gleaming greenhouse is closing the circle with the past as it “repeats the first pattern of enterprise in Brooklyn,” said Julie Golia, the public historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
“Locavorism was necessary then,” she said. “There were no refrigerated trucks. You ate what you grew immediately, or it would rot.”