Bell Book & Candle’s John Mooney Explains Why Urban Gardening Rocks (Except When a Blizzard Hits)


It seems like everyone’s a locavore these days, and while many people talk the talk, it’s another matter finding chefs who actually walk the walk. One who really champions the philosophy is John Mooney, whose restaurant Bell Book & Candle (141 West 10th Street, 212-414-2355) opened just a few weeks ago. Namely because it’s a rooftop-to-table restaurant, supplying itself with 60 percent of the produce used. We called up Mooney to learn more about his secret garden.

“Bell, book, and candle” references a form of excommunication and is also a 1958 Jimmy Stewart film about a witch who lives in Greenwich Village. Is the restaurant a reference to either of those?

It wasn’t really about either, although the setting of the movie is nearby in the Village. It’s pretty picturesque here and we’re in a landmarked building. The name has the feeling we want to convey.

Why create a rooftop garden?

I’ve always been related closely to sourcing with my food programs. I had a restaurant in Florida and I had been looking into alternative technologies there, which directly translated to what we’re doing here. It was natural progression and luck. The guy who developed the technology [Future Growing LLC] was down there. Even with conventional farming, you have to add stuff to the soil. The water system we have here is totally contained and we grow vertically. My vegetables aren’t grown for storage or transport. And harvesting at proper times of the day, you see a benefit. It’s perfect — rather than looking for sources, I am the source.

Is it also more cost-effective?

Yes. You have the initial start-up costs, but, over the course of the year, it’s very cost-effective in terms of a labor sense and overall benefits to the restaurant.

How long did it take to install?

Well, we used a greenhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to propagate the seeds there. But then the physical setup here was only three days. But going up six flights to the roof is a lot of stairs! My partner Mick [O’Sullivan] and I did it all.

How do you deal with the winter months?

The snow crushed us. I pulled everything up a week ago. But it’ll be back up March 1. And with the planting, it’ll be both front-of-house and back-of-house doing it. Now, I do get some stuff from the Union Square Greenmarket. And we use a farm in Lancaster that uses the same technology.

What are your favorite things that you grow in the garden?

On the fruit side, I get a huge kick out of the strawberries because they come out perfectly. I like melons, too, because the vines make the garden look so cool. And herbs and lettuces. All the things that grow in the morning, like okra flowers and zucchini blossoms that reach for the sun. And nasturtium. It’s inspiring to see now naturally beautiful the plants are.

Check back tomorrow for when John reveals his sentiments on fake locavorism and why he’s not a crusader.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 5, 2011

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