For Story Inn’s chef, Eric Swanson, there’s no need to travel to reap the bounties found at a farmers market.
That’s because Story Inn currently cultivates all of its own seasonal herbs, fruits and vegetables.
“We have more ground under cultivation than any restaurant in southern Indiana,” said co-owner and general manager Jacob Ebel.
The restaurant has tripled its land under cultivation since 2015.
The Story Inn sits in the middle of an 18-acre, 19th century town, making it unique in a true seed-to-table way.
“Every afternoon we go out and harvest the greens, tomatoes, sweet corn — you name it — that we’ll be serving each night, which means we plan our menus by what we pick that day,” said Swanson, who has served as executive chef for nearly four years.
“We encourage our dinner customers to arrive early and meet their salad.”
It’s not unusual to see Swanson and his staff, clad in white uniforms, cutting or plucking directly from the inn’s three gardens and orchard each day.
The Story Inn’s 2017 garden contained a bounty of produce: seven varieties of peppers, two varieties of cucumbers, eight varieties of lettuces, three types of kale, four varieties of eggplant, three varieties of summer squash and three varieties of beans.
That doesn’t include a perplexing number of herbs, among them three types of basil, cilantro, arugula, rosemary, thyme, chives and parsley.
Making this type of commitment to fresh cuisine requires constant care and attention. Jackie Wilkerson and her husband, Pete, make it all happen.
“They are the most delightful couple,” co-owner Rick Hofstetter said. “Both are in remission from cancer. I think working in a garden, getting hands dirty, is therapeutic for them — no, it’s therapeutic for everyone. Over half of the world’s population have abandoned farms for cities, and we, as a species, are unfortunately becoming disconnected from the earth itself.”
But there are drawbacks are relying upon what you grow — such as the competition for what’s fresh.
“After we got everything in the ground this year, and when the early stuff started to appear — the asparagus in particular — we discovered rabbits and deer acquired a taste and would often get there first,” Jackie said.
That’s why Pete fenced in a quarter-acre of the most intensively farmed portion with chicken wire. It worked.
“As soon as we got the critters out of there, the earth literally exploded,” Jackie said.
The Story Inn encourages its customers to stroll through that garden, so long as they remember to close the gate behind them.
Thieving herbivores are not the only challenge. Chef Swanson points out that gardens take planning, as well as planting.
“Having access to a large variety of heirloom vegetables brings endless possibilities of flavor profiling and pairings; specific types of one plant offer tastes not commonly experienced,” he said.
“Learning to follow and read the weather patterns and seasons has been a challenge in planning gardens a year out, but thanks to Jackie and Pete, we are cultivating a very important path for Story.”
Story’s goal is to define and refine what Hoosier cuisine means.
“Our goal is to create a completely sustainable synthesis between farmer and restaurant,” Swanson said.
“The problem around here right now is with oversupply,” Ebel said. “So we’re making gazpacho and freezing it for winter, when store-bought tomatoes have the texture of apples and the taste of air. And we’re selling our surplus right here, at the restaurant.
“These days you’ll get a fresh slice of heirloom tomato on your Fischer Farms burger, from nearby Jasper. That’s a local as it gets.”