Verdura Culinary Design • Sara Gasbarra
One quality that sets innovators apart - they see opportunity where others do not. Sara is no exception. Since leaving her office job in Chicago, Sara's Verdura Culinary Garden Design has partnered with restaurants in Chicago + Nashville to transform unused space - from rooftops to alleyways - into productive gardens.
From both a practical and ethical standpoint, growing hyperlocal is the future. The carbon cost of shipping produce long distances is fundamentally unsustainable - as are the inevitable spoilage + food waste that comes with long transports across continents and internationally. Growing produce on location is a completely new paradigm that's avoids both these issues. As our impact makes the world less predictable, it's my hope that this new way of growing + sourcing will naturally evolve into the status quo. And for that reason alone, I'm exceptionally grateful for this new generation of farmers like Sara that choose to apply their perspective, skill set, and non-traditional backgrounds to a career in changing how we eat - and how we think.
What’s the story behind where you are today?
I literally grew up in a garden. My earliest childhood memories are of spending time with my father (who was born in Italy) tending our tomato and basil plants. My maternal grandparents had a summer lake house with a large garden and I would spent part of the summer there picking beans, learning how to compost the catfish we would catch off their pier and seeding all sorts of colorful flowers. I’m often asked if I went to school for agriculture and my answer is no - I simply grew up with this. Having access to a garden as a child influenced me in countless ways both professionally and personally. I can’t stress the importance of teaching children to garden. It impacts the food choices we make as adults, encourages a healthier lifestyle and fosters a deep appreciation for seasonality, conservation and treating our planet kindly.
What’s your Why?
My “job" is my favorite pastime. Prior to starting my business seven seasons ago, I had a pretty boring, uninspiring desk job. I dreaded getting out of bed each day, hopping on the train into downtown Chicago and walking into a stale office building. In the spring en route to my office from the train station, I would stroll past landscape companies planting gorgeous vegetation along Michigan Avenue and I was admittedly quite envious of the workers. I would think to myself, “How do I get to do this?” I wanted so desperately to be outside, working with my hands, creating beauty from plants.
Flash forward several years later, I took some big career risks and figured out a way to make that a reality. It hasn’t been perfect and its still fraught with the stresses of building a small business, but being outdoors each day is the best kind of remedy for that stress. I have fun every day I’m working.
What’s on the list for today? What’s next?
Two years ago I launched my culinary gardening business in Nashville. I’m now working with chefs and restaurants in Chicago and Nashville and splitting my time between both cities. My goal is to cultivate more projects in Nashville and embrace the slightly longer growing season. I will always have one foot in Chicago as I have some incredible anchor projects there. Both cities are unique and offer me very different opportunities. My long term goal is to create a consulting arm of my company so that I can assist chefs and restaurants beyond Chicago and Nashville realize their gardening goals. I’m developing a project model that can be easily applied and executed whether you're a small independent neighborhood restaurant or a large scale hotel.
What’s one thing that you’d like people to know?
People often think they need a vast space to cultivate a garden and of course that’s not true. When working with restaurants, the spaces we have at our disposal are often pretty unconventional and challenging - I set up gardens in city alleyways, on rooftops and on balconies. You don’t need beautiful yard or a larger parcel of land to cultivate a successful garden. There are so many products out there to help transform an odd space into a beautiful and productive garden. And even just a few simple pots of herbs can make an impact. People assume because I run a gardening business that I must have a large scale home garden and I don’t. I’ve always lived in the city and tend a very small scale, but productive garden plot. It amazes me what you can grow in a tiny space - a lot more than you think!