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“Project Roots”: In the Garden with Oriole 9 & Woodstock Day School by M. R. Smith

With a combination of international classiness and homespun community spirit, Oriole 9 has become a popular mainstay restaurant in the center of Woodstock, no mean feat by any stretch. Owners Pierre-Luc Moeys and Nina Paturel have expanded on the success of their previous endeavor—Café With Love in Saugerties—with an ever-shifting menu that makes full use of locally grown produce and meats in inventive yet comfortable dishes in a sophisticatedly cozy environment.

Now into their third year with Oriole 9, Luc and Nina have found a new way to satisfy their innate need for new projects to start up. Along with Oriole 9 head chef Mike Bernardo, and the kids and faculty of Woodstock Day School (WDS), they’ve put in a sizable garden on a sunny patch of ground on the school campus—Luc likes to call it “the farm,” but Nina chides him: “it’s just a garden, no animals”—that they and the kids plan to make into a learning experience about what it takes to grow your own food naturally, without chemicals or artificial means. Fresh produce for both the school and the restaurant, fun and productive outdoor time for all—it’s a win-win situation. Not bad for a plan concocted on a Florida beach just over four months ago.

Standing inside the enclosed garden area at Woodstock Day School—surrounded by a six-foot high critter fence—“neo-farmers” Luc and Nina gaze proudly upon the rows of recently planted seedlings peeping up. Since beginning this project in January, Luc has been enjoying a taste of déjà vu, while thinking back on his childhood, growing up in Amsterdam. “We always had gardens at school, usually a 5’ by 10’ bed where we would grow everything. And then we would bring (the vegetables) home, and of course wouldn’t want to eat them. We were ten years old!”

But ten year-old boys grow out of vege-phobia, and some even grow up to be chefs. Luc chose the culinary path, which for him frequently meant working in restaurants that had their own gardens, where he would have to go out in the morning and get what was needed straight from the land for the afternoon repast. Over time he’s come to appreciate the experience. “I’ve trained a lot of chefs, and I do think they should see everything from scratch.”

The young up-and-coming chef became smitten with American-born Nina Paturel, a dark-haired beauty who had recently emigrated to the Netherlands, and the two decided to follow a job to Calabria. But when the job didn’t work out and Nina became pregnant, they decided to move back to the States in 2004 to where Nina’s family was based: Woodstock. Luc was hired by John Novi at Depuy Canal House in High Falls, where he met Mike Bernardo, at the time the head chef there. Mike was in his fourth year at the Canal House, having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2001. He and Luc worked well together, becoming close friends. They left around the same time, with Mike taking a job at the Emerson in Woodstock.

But Luc and Nina wanted their own place, and one day walking around Saugerties, Nina found the spot while looking in the window of what was once a vintage boutique shop. “It was so typically Dutch; a narrow, long room with tin ceilings, with rounded windows, a foot and a half wide.” With just enough room for a kitchen and a few tables, Café With Love came into being, and was a big local hit, with some die-hard patrons even enjoying their repast on the sidewalk out front when the (too few) tables were filled. With the help of investors, they set their sights on a larger space that became available in Woodstock, and exactly a year after opening Café With Love, on June 7, 2006 they opened Oriole 9, with none other than Mike Bernardo on board.

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With Oriole 9 doing well, Luc and Nina were ready for a new project (these guys like to stay busy). A new restaurant was considered, but then the economy started to tank, they considered their other choice: a garden, Luc’s “farm.” While taking a needed Florida break with Mike in January, they conceived the notion of partnering with WDS, for whom Luc had coached an Ultimate Frisbee team the previous year. Gardening was Mike’s big hobby already, so he was interested and upon return from Florida, he quickly got the seeds together and threw a planting party with Oriole 9 employees at his home, where the seedlings spent the rest of the winter germinating.

Woodstock Day School got right on board, supplying a suitable location and assistance from the student body. And though the younger students help out with basic tasks like weeding and watering, several older students have become more actively involved, receiving extra credit for their work.

And the community has also responded. Houst Hardware—next door to Oriole 9—loaned them the use of a tiller and posthole digger. A realtor friend from New Jersey came up and spent an entire day helping Mike erect the critter fence. Nina laughs, “Luc put a sign-up sheet out at the restaurant, with the gear we needed listed. Customers signed up!” A little barter didn’t hurt either: promise of a free meal at Oriole 9 can get some good results.

The garden is as “organic” as they can make it, short of being certified. As Mike describes it, “we’re growing, I would say, ‘organic-style.’ No pesticides, [using] organic mushroom soil—really everything that’s in our power to do. Obviously we’re not certified; in New York state laws, I think that it’s six years of growing nothing, and the soil being tested by the FDA, before you can even be called Certified Organic . . . A lot of the farms around here that grow organically can’t say [they’re organic], because it costs too much, they’d have to charge more, and pay the government to get the labeling.” New York laws are pretty stringent: certified organic farms—including dairy farms—are not allowed to be within ten miles of a non-organic farm, due to potential cross-pollination. Use of the onsite pond also disqualifies, as its source (rain, springs) is uncontrolled, the water unfiltered.

But they’re doing everything else right. The soil tested pretty neutral, so they brought in some organic mushroom soil to fill in the rows. A large compost pile has been started off to the side, fed with scraps from both Oriole 9 and the school cafeteria (one of the WDS students has taken the composting on as a special project) but it won’t be much help until next year. The soil will need a few seasons before it yields its best.

To combat pests, natural pesticide plants—like nasturtiums and marigolds—are employed, as well as cheesecloth and a mixture of water, garlic powder, chili powder, and a natural oil base to make a spray that deters most of the local bugs. This being the first year of the garden, the pest situation is still largely an unknown, as well as what exactly will grow well, so they’ve opted for a wide array of produce: broccoli; cauliflower; kohl-rabi; eggplant; squash; snap peas; beans and lettuce in alternating rows (beans provide suitable shade for lettuces); several kinds of tomatoes; the major herbs; Napa cabbage; spinach; onions; cucumbers; carrots; parsnips; beets; peppers; radishes; cantaloupes; honeydew melons; and watermelons.

The produce will be split between Oriole 9 and the school, with the school using their share for school lunches and fundraising at the Woodstock Farm Festival, where Luc and Mike plan on having students prepare home grown goodies to sell to the public. Anyone who helps out gets a share of the bounty.

On this sunny May day, however, this potential bounty is still at seedling stage. Three solid days of heavy rain have pelted the fledglings, prompting downright maternal concern from all involved—but after two days of sun, they’ve popped right back up: a timeless metaphor brought to life, one we could all take to heart in these times. It’s not lost on Luc: “It sounds cheesy and sentimental, but it’s also a good time to ‘give something back.’ We’ve been blessed at Oriole 9—and with Café With Love—and we’d like to share the energy.” —R

www.oriole9.com/farm.html



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