ESSEX — Hair wind-blown and jeans smudged with dirt, Frank McClelland glanced out over a field spotted with yellow and rippling lightly with the wind.
Suddenly he leaned down, nudging a garlic shoot out of the soil. He gently brushed it clean, then raised it for a sniff.
“It’s sweet, so aromatic,” he said, holding it out for a small group of guests to take a whiff for themselves. “Doesn’t it make you hungry?”
McClelland is in the business of feeding people. But he doesn’t just cover one aspect of the soil-to-plate spectrum. By day, he cultivates and harvests crops at Apple Street Farm in Essex; then at night, he buttons up his chef’s jacket to create Zagat-rated dishes at his Boston and Natick restaurants, L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre. In between, when he can, he distributes bushels of fresh produce to local caterers and restaurants.
“I work kind of around the clock,” the 55-year-old farmer, chef, and father of four said on a recent morning while tending to his 14-acre farm.
On that spread tucked away off a shady, winding road, he grows dozens of different fruits, vegetables, and greens: lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, arugula, asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, shallots, leeks, sage, oregano, thyme, fava beans, plus edible and pick-your-own flowers.
One acre is dedicated to onions, another to potatoes. A stretch of 500 strawberry plants yields 50 quarts about every three days this time of year. Thousands of tomatoes are distributed annually. He and his team forage, as well — for wild sorrel, grapes, and wintergreen.
Then there are the resident bees, laying and meat hens, hogs, turkeys, goats, and geese (primarily providing meat, milk, eggs, and honey for McClelland’s family).
“The list marches on,” he said.
All this keeps him and five workers busy. They’re buttressed by dozens of volunteers, including chefs, cooks, and waiters (and their families) from his restaurants, as well as groups from Gordon College, Pingree School in Hamilton, and several area grade schools.
With each new season, demand grows, and so does the farm. This year it has expanded to eight satellite fields, and provides produce for McClelland’s establishments, another 10 restaurants and caterers, a Community Supported Agriculture program that includes 70 families, and a farm stand. It also hosts monthly themed, four-course outdoor dinners — at $175 a person — in the summer.
Whereas in the restaurant it’s “Do we have enough of what we need?” and “Are we ready?,” on the farm the concerns center around weather and blight, and “When are we going to be able to get 2,000 tomato plants in the ground?” he said.
As he moved on from the greenhouse, he passed through an old barn housing dozens of peeping chicks. Fenced-in areas included goats and their kids, rooting piglets, geese, and four breeds of clucking chickens.
Between tending to fields and fowl, overseeing his workers and volunteers, and planning plantings and crop rotations, McClelland regularly meets with his chefs from L’Espalier and Sel de la Terre, devising seasonal dishes around his crops. Recent creations included strawberry with foie gras and various takes on asparagus; there’s also a regular “Apple Street Farm salad” at L’Espalier, located on Boylston Street in the Back Bay.
“It’s great to have someone who's farming who also knows the restaurant world,” said Amelia O’Reilly, chef and owner of The Market Restaurant in Gloucester, which receives deliveries each week from Apple Street. “It’s nice to work with a farm that is owned by a chef. They know what sort of things a restaurant’s looking for.”
Ultimately, the farm’s regular bounty serves as inspiration for local chefs, much like a certain color or texture might stimulate an artist’s creativity.
For example, Lindsey Wishart, head chef of Chive Sustainable Event Design & Catering in Beverly, said she is often introduced to different types of greens and herbs through Apple Street — such as spicy radish sprouts — that elevate dishes and make for great flavorings in soups, stocks, and light sauces for poached chicken or fish.
“Everything they grow is just so beautiful. You can tell they just put a lot of care into the way they’re growing it,” said Wishart. “If they have it, I want it.”
At The Market, new menus are devised every morning.
“We really can highlight whatever looks good on the farms,” said O’Reilly. “I can't imagine cooking any other way.”
Although the “farm-to-fork” concept has become more popular, McClelland said it wasn’t a business decision when he started the farm in 2009. Rather, he was looking to reconnect with his past. He grew up on his grandparents’ farm in the White Mountains, eating five- and six-course meals prepared by his grandmother, a chef. Later, he got his first job as a chef’s assistant at a camp.
“It’s the right purpose for me,” he said. “It’s not what you have, but what you do, that makes you happy.
“In five to 10 years, more and more serious cooks will have their own farms. Local, sustainable, knowing where your food is coming from . . . it’s all going back to where we should be.”
Taryn Plumb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.