As the days count down to the debut of the Dabney, chef Jeremiah Langhorne's meditation and extrapolation of Mid-Atlantic cuisine, the tasks have become focused on the operational side of the restaurant: training the floor staff, planning the opening-day menu, learning to cook in an open hearth without setting your whites on fire.
But one bit of infrastructure still remains outstanding: the outdoor patio with an herb garden running along the length of its roof. Crews still have to stain the wood, and Langhorne and team still have to sow seeds in the planter boxes atop the structure. Langhorne expects the patio and garden will be complete by the time the Dabney officially debuts late next week, following three friends-and-family services to prep the staff.
With less than 300 square feet of planter space, the Dabney garden will be smaller than the one Langhorne helped create on the roof of McCrady's in Charleston, S.C., where he was chef de cuisine for several years. The McCrady's garden came about, if you'll excuse the pun, organically. Langhorne and Sean Brock, the chef responsible for putting McCrady's on the map, first started growing herbs in trays in the kitchen.
They quickly moved to the rooftop of the 18th-century building where McCrady's is housed. Before long, the garden became a 400-plus-square-foot nursery filled with all sorts of potted plants and dirt beds, growing chervil, citrus trees, sweet woodruff, sweet cicely and many different varieties of cilantro and basil, among many other plants.
"It just turned into the Disneyland that exists on the roof," Brock told me recently.
At one point, the McCrady's rooftop garden became so large and so covered with grow beds that "we did get worried about" its weight, Langhorne says. "We brought an engineer out, and he took a look at it. He was like, 'Look, this is a pretty beefy roof. They built things well back in the day.'. . .[But] he was like, "Just don't put any more soil up here. If you want to put out movable pots, that's fine, but no more beds."
One other thing Langhorne and Brock didn't have to worry about: drainage. The McCrady's roof has a natural slope, with a drain below. By contrast, the Dabney's patio space, as Langhorne likes to say, is "very complicated." It won't have a standard pitched roof to direct water to a drain.
"Because we want the guests that are sitting below [the patio garden] to have as much light come through as possible, we don't want [the roof] to be solid," Langhorne says.
That decision created a drainage problem for architects and designers (who already had to redesign the patio to accommodate both Pepco and the Historic Preservation Office). Their drainage solution was to create a water-collection system for each of the planter boxes on the roof, which will then flow to a common drain that directs the runoff away from the building, says superintendent Michael Bresee with Hospitality Construction Services, the Dabney contractor.
Langhorne plans to use the planters mostly for herbs and microgreens.
"Your average farmer does not grow herbs. They might grow a couple. They might grow, like, chives or thyme," Langhorne says. "We could grow full vegetables in these boxes if we wanted to, but I don't want to take away business from our farmers."
One of the benefits of growing your own herbs, the chef says, is he can decide when to use them. Too many growers snip their microgreens before they've had time to mature, he says.
"I like them when they're about two or three weeks old, so they've actually developed the flavor and shape of the plant they become," Langhorne says.
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