With a persistent gluten-free craze taking shape across the country, one might think grain-based pastas would be losing favor with diners and home cooks. According to Jeff Gardner, owner of Pasta Gardner in Eugene, Oregon, the demand for organic, freshly made pastas is doing anything but. His is a story of farm-to-plate passion and a grandmother’s guidance.
Jeff gives a lot of credit for his early “local food” leanings to his entire family, but especially to one special person in his life. “I got the cooking bug from Grandma Gardner. She would visit every summer and Christmas time and we would go out to the pastures and pick blackberries.” Getting the fundamentals during childhood, she encouraged him to keep on cooking. He admits his whole family is food driven, saying “there’s not too much distance in our minds between one meal and the next.”
His passion for pasta actually took shape during the years following his professional education at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York. During stints in the kitchens of Thomas Kellers’ famed Bouchon and French Laundry in Napa Valley he came to understood why schools are usually built on French traditions. But, he says,”I got tired of making things so perfect and wasting a lot of food. While perfection is important for their cuisine he says, “I wanted to do something that used all the ingredients and wasn’t quite so fussy”.
Encouraged by his friends at Hyde Park, he set out to learn the authentic nature of a cuisine known to be “more fun….Italian”. With a scholarship in hand and funds saved by working 2 jobs for a year, he packed his bags and headed to the land of pizza and pasta.
Once back in Eugene, Jeff explored the idea of opening his own restaurant, but the reality of financing the venture proved insurmountable. Intent on developing a business that sourced ingredients locally, he researched central Oregon wheat farms for the one that prized a direct relationship with a chef.
That journey led him to Camus Country Mill and staff member Stephanie Powers, who was excited about the prospect of a farmer-chef collaboration. Jeff said “I wanted to use their flour because I thought it made great sense. I didn’t have to spend the money on shipping costs and I knew where the wheat was coming from”.
With so many positives to using local wheat, the challenge he faced head on was to find “a grind” that he could stand behind. He says “anyone can make great pasta. It’s not hard and it’s been done. You can buy flour from anywhere in the world and make great pasta. I wanted to be different and do something that actually had a purpose and reason behind it. So I decided to make pasta and I worked with Camus for a year to develop a flour that was of excellent quality.”
As with any food collaboration, there can be a steady stream of testing. Every week Camus Mill shared a pound or two of flour for Jeff to test in his kitchen, and they shared notes on the resulting pasta. Together they worked out a wheat growing and pasta making collaboration that is bringing creative excitement and success to both businesses.
To keep his offerings creatively colorful and healthy, Jeff draws inspiration from local farmers and food producers, such as Groundwork Organics, and Organic Redneck/McKenzie River Farm. Farmers markets provide a venue for easy conversation, where farmers will say ‘Hey Jeff, we saw somebody doing something with nettles up in Seattle and we have 10,000 nettles. We could bring it to you”. Jeff replied, “fantastic, give it to me. From one exchange, Jeff created a new pasta from those nettles and people loved it.
TLD: Which farm products give your pasta that green vibrancy?
Jeff: The green depends on what’s fresh and in season. I’ve made it out of kale, spinach, and even nettles. The green actually holds really well with single-variety, organic, Edison Hard White Wheat, a whiter wheat developed by Bellingham plant breeder Merrill Lewis and that Camus now grows. They didn’t have it when I first started in business so it was really hard to dye because the red wheat I was using turned the pasta red instead of the green I can achieve now with the Edison.”
Chef Gardner believes that whole grain and heirloom wheat have become popularized because it is minimally processed and not reconstituted. “‘As pasta makers, he says, we’re turning back to the fundamentals, the basics of pasta making”.
With an eye toward expansion, his business depended on the purchase of a high volume extruder from Italy. A successful Kickstarter project, which he owes to many of his dedicated followers who really wanted to push it through, gave him the equipment needed. “Well, right now we can overproduce which is a good problem to have. We can do roughly 90 to a 100 pounds an hour, compared to the 15-20 pounds an hour of earlier runs”.
TLD: Tell us about your typical day?
Jeff: I am the chief cook and dishwasher. I do everything and it depends on the day. I make it, I package it, I distribute it, I do the social media, and I wash the dishes. Late at night is when I make the pasta; during the middle of the day is usually when I distribute and do marketing, and then back to same routine the next day.
TLD: What flavor combinations are intriguing to you right now?
Jeff: “When I was in France I saw that they had a blue pasta made with algae and I thought that was kind of interesting, not that I want to put it in my pasta yet, but it’s definitely very intriguing. I’ve never seen blue pasta before but I don’t want to put anything in that’s controversial and that’s why I’m cautious about it.
I’ve discovered that it takes quite a bit of something to make pasta turn a certain color or have a certain flavor and not everything works or turns out like you want it to.
Like lemon and turmeric. That didn’t really come out as I hoped. The flavor was kind of muddled out, but it’s all trial and error. A LOT of it.
Making a spicy pasta is next on my list to try, like a black pepper pasta, and I’m going to use local spices. There’s a producer in Junction City who makes a pepper combination and it’s called Hell Dust and it has 16 varieties of spicy smoked peppers. I’ve been trying to find a ratio that works with the spice and that lingers after you cook the pasta. It’s a fine balance between respect for the taste buds and bringing enough flavor forward.”
TLD: Where can pasta lovers find your product?
Jeff: “Besides Eugene farmers markets and specialty shops, we will start at Whole Foods in August. They have already placed an order so when the store opens in Eugene we will be ready to go. They have plans to expand my distribution to their Portland and Bend stores. With the new extruder I’ve been able to switch from spending all my hours manufacturing to marketing and developing new contacts for sales.”
Jeff’s philosophy is thoroughly local-leaning, one that he encourages all his customers to embrace. “I just like the challenge that eating local brings. We have this culture where we want to have everything all the time. You can make several dishes with hundreds of combinations by using anything that’s available even if it’s not in season. But to make it truly good and exceptional with minimal work, just use what you have in season, what you have around you and that’s how you create good food… by trying new combinations, experimenting.”