by Lesley Draper
One of Sheffield’s most successful restaurant groups is branching out – by growing its own fruit and vegetables.
And Luke French, executive head chef of the Milestone, Wig & Pen and Fancie, doesn’t believe in doing things by halves...
Not content with a herb garden on the pub roof, he has taken over a former industrial site at Shalesmoor and set up a market garden stocked with more than 30 tonnes of soil and 900,000 seeds.
Horticulture is nothing new to Luke, who comes from a farming family.
The ambitious grow-your-own project began when he got chatting to a local landowner, who offered to let them use an area of wasteland surrounded by derelict works buildings.
“We’d been growing our own micro leaves on a small scale on the rooftops and in greenhouses out the back, but it was a bit inaccessible,” says Luke. “This was a whole different scale.”
He roped in boss Matt Bigland and assistant manager Alan Smith to clear the side of weeds and debris – helped by members of the kitchen and front-of-house teams.
Then they bought in 15 hefty lengths of tanalised timber to create a series of huge raised beds.
One of their regular customers, a farmer, supplied 24 tonnes of soil; and finally they ordered enough seeds to provide a steady supply of produce over the coming months.
“It’s a really good ethos for us as a restaurant,” says Luke. “Not only is it fresh and top quality, with no food miles, but it enables us to grow absolutely anything – we’re not restricted by what we can get hold of from our suppliers.”
So alongside the courgettes, tomatoes, turnips and salad leaves are a host of more unusual ingredients. There’s saltwort, an exclusive type of land-grown seaweed; apple marigold, an aromatic, spiky-leaved garnish; and a whole range of edible flowers.
“It’s really rewarding, particularly with the growing business,” says Luke. “I love it; it’s very therapeutic.
“We’re now at a level where we can grow what we want to, including more specialised varieties, which makes us a bit more unusual.
“People can come to us and eat things they may not have had before... It puts us up there with Fischer’s and Chatsworth.”
A part-time gardener has now been recruited to oversee the garden. Next on the agenda is a 21ft poly-tunnel, which will enable them to continue growing throughout the winter.
Luke hopes eventually to supply all three restaurants, buying in only bulk produce such as potatoes.