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Old Chaser Farm: A Seattle Chef’s Garden on Vashon Island, Washington

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Old Chaser Farm: A Seattle Chef’s Garden on Vashon Island, Washington

November 27, 2017

With five other Seattle restaurants to run, award-winning chef Matt Dillon chose the ingredients for the menu of his Capitol Hill wine bar, Bar Ferdinand, with a simple goal: “The whole idea at Bar Ferdinand is that we don’t buy anything.”

That’s where Old Chaser Farm comes into the picture. On 20 acres of land on Vashon Island (a 30-minute ferry ride from the city), Dillon and farmer Pierre Monnat grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs, tend bees, and raise pigs and chickens to supply the restaurant. “Everything we grow on the farm fits into one of two categories, either fresh produce for the restaurant, or ingredients to use in the larder,” says Dillon, who in 2012 won a James Beard Best Chef award at another of his restaurants, Sitka & Spruce.

At the pesticide-free farm, everything is grown organically. And nothing goes to waste—Bar Ferdinand’s food scraps return to the farm, to feed the chickens and pigs. “With Bar Ferdinand and Old Chaser, minimizing our impact is just as important as how well we treat our customers at the restaurant and how delicious the food is,” Dillon says.

Photography by Aaron Leitz for Gardenista.

Above: Dillon bought Old Chaser Farm in 2010 with business partners Jennifer and Christopher Roberts; it was an organic “U-Pick” blueberry farm he found in a real estate listing. The property has a main house, shown here, plus a “cookhouse,” an all-purpose space that can be rented for events (featured on Remodelista today). The Robertses live in the house during the summer when their children are out of school, and their plan is to eventually live on the island full time.
Above: The gardens in front of the main house and cookhouse were collaborative efforts with Jennifer Roberts, said Dillon. The two kept a good deal of what was already growing on the property, but uprooted and replanted it. “I’m not the best farmer in the world,” said Dillon, “but I like doing that kind of stuff.”
Above: A small patio behind the cookhouse serves as an outdoor dining room for events. The farm staff also uses the table for daytime lunches and farm tasks, such as “sitting and processing all the beans on bean-drying day,” says Dillon.
Above: Dillon and Monnat built the arbor bordering the cookhouse garden. “I wanted it to have separation from the rest of the farm,” said Dillon.
Above: Both gardens, at the cookhouse and main house, are planted mostly with ornamentals and herbs.

The gardens’ herbs include sage, thyme, mint, and sorrel. “Bar Ferdinand gets first dibs on all of that,” says the restaurateur. He also grows roses to make petal-infused vinegar.

Above: A concrete patio off the cookhouse has rows of string lights hanging above for use during events. (See the rest in Seattle Chef Matt Dillon’s Cookhouse at Old Chaser Farm on Vashon Island.)
Above: The hardworking part of the property is the farm, which supplies almost all of the food served at Bar Ferdinand. Most of Old Chaser’s blackberries will become jam, says Dillon, perhaps for a cheese dish with jam, or frozen whole for blackberry ice cream. Other shrubs on the farm produce marion berries, raspberries, and blueberries.

The farm’s staff includes Monnat (a full-time farmer), plus Dillon and three seasonal employees. “We don’t have a lot of variety,” says Dillon of the produce grown on the farm, “since it’s only a couple of us working there.” We’d beg to differ. Among the vegetables: Potatoes, onions, cabbage, garlic, beans, radishes, turnips, leeks, pumpkins, squash, kale, chard, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, burdock, carrots, tomatoes, and chicory.

Above: A Scottish Highland cow, raised for meat.

Dillon explains why he chose the Scottish Highland breed: “If you were a chef and wanted to show off how bad-ass you are, you might raise an heirloom French breed, baby it, and get an insanely marbled piece of meat,” he says. But that’s not his style. He likes the Scottish Highland because it needs very little human intervention and consumes minimal resources. “It’s important to me that I think about my impact, instead of just how the taste reflects on me as a chef,” he says. “Plus, since we use the whole animal, one cow will last us a really long time.”

Above: Old Chaser has laying chickens for eggs, plus other chickens and pigs raised for meat.

The pigs and chickens eat scraps from the restaurant’s kitchen—mainly vegetables, grains, and fish. “If bread and butter come back in a bowl, we put it in our ‘pig bucket’ everyday,” says Dillon. Composting is better than nothing, he notes, “but I would rather take that food and turn it directly back into food.”

The chef rides the ferry from the city, carrying buckets of food scraps from the Seattle restaurant to the Vashon Island farm once a week.

Above: The farm’s orchard produces plums, cherries, quince, apples, and pears. Dillon keeps some of the apples and pears whole, but most are juiced to make cider vinegar for the restaurant’s larder.

Nearby, a few beehives produce honey for the farm.

Above: When he bought the farm, says Dillon, the understory beneath the berry plants was out of control. “We did what anyone would do,” he said, “and started to slowly clear the land with chickens and pigs.” They then planted vegetable beds until the property started to look like a working farm. A year in, the land was producing enough food for a CSA program and to supply Bar Ferdinand.
Above: Sun Gold tomatoes thrive in the hothouse. “They’re good slicing tomatoes, meant to go into sauce or to be frozen,” says Dillon.
Above: A makeshift greenhouse with trays of seedlings protected from the sun on shaded worktables.
Above: Both the cookhouse and main house have large west-facing lawns, says Dillon, “but the summer sun can be brutal” so the grass goes brown seasonally.

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