It’s 5 a.m. and chef Niven Patel’s favorite part of the day. He’s on a walkabout around Rancho Patel, the two-acre farm surrounding his family’s Homestead residence. He inspects his crops—from turnips to tatsoi. It’s a peaceful time, he says—a creative outlet that inspires him to dream up new dishes and drinks. On most days, he’s shadowed by his twin toddler daughters, Ari and Aya. He guides them as they pick fresh flowers that are nestled in bright clusters between the rows of crops. Later, these petite bouquets will end up on the tables of his trio of restaurants: Ghee Indian Kitchen, plus a pair of offerings inside Coral Gables’ Thesis Hotel: Mamey and Orno.
By 9 a.m., though, Patel trades his farmer’s hat for a chef’s apron. Each of his concepts is as unique as the ingredients he grows on his farm. Ghee pays homage to Patel’s Indian roots; its constantly changing menu is inspired by his love of Indian street food, which has brought him national acclaim. Mamey (named after a tropically grown fruit) offers dishes full of insight into Patel’s travels throughout Asia, Polynesia, and the Caribbean. Orno (a play on the word horno, which means “oven” in Spanish) serves new American cuisine that revolves around locally sourced vegetables, high-quality meats, and sustainably caught seafood—all cooked to perfection using a wood-fire grill.
For Patel, everything starts and ends with ingredients—including the decision to purchase the land that houses Rancho Patel. He fell in love with the Homestead farm in 2014 after discovering an outcrop of lychee trees in full bloom on the property. “I love lychees; there is nothing better than lychee on ice,” says Patel, who has been named a James Beard Award nominee and Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef of 2020.
Since then, Patel has added to the farm, which now boasts more than 35 types of
organically grown fruits and vegetables. And these are not your garden-variety produce picks; each item in Rancho Patel’s crop rotation is curated from a collection of seeds and saplings the chef has amassed during his trips around the world. It’s extra work, for sure, and often means 14-to-16-hour days, but Patel says his brand of organic farming makes for better meals. “I want top-notch quality and a menu that changes daily,” he says. “I love the farm-to-table renaissance and I work hard on it.”
Patel selects the fruits, vegetables, and herbs for each season based on what he wants to serve in his restaurants. In winter, he uses flowers, herbs, and vegetables; summers are for exotic fruits. His gamut of farm-to-fork ingredients—many discovered during in his years of cooking in Florence, Italy; the Grand Cayman Islands; Baltimore, Maryland; and the Florida Keys—includes exotic delights like makrut lime, jackfruit, seedless white guava, mamey, starfruit, papaya, okra, curry, and cucamelons, as well as more traditional ingredients like ginger, eggplant, carrots, romano beans, and heirloom tomatoes. With the help of farmer Laura Sutton, crops are harvested at their peak—and then the magic begins, as they make their way onto menus in Patel’s restaurants.
Tomatoes are often the stars of the show at Mamey, serving as the counterpoint to
Patel’s popular watermelon salad with goat cheese, cucumber, radish, pickled fresnos, tamarind, peanuts, and mint, or in a sofrito atop his yellowfin tuna tostones.
Carrots are some of Patel’s favorite farm yields. At Orno, he uses them to make wood-fired heirloom carrots. He starts with freshly harvested carrots bathed in olive oil and a healthy dash of salt, and roasts it all in a wood-fired oven. When the carrots are softened, Patel adds a cilantro chutney, a cumin yogurt sauce, and crispy chickpea noodles. He brings it all together with chopped tomatoes and onions, tossing in the roasted carrots and topping it with the two sauces. He adds pomegranate seeds and herbs to finish it all off, resulting in a bold and bright plate that’s filled with homegrown vegetables.
Patel relishes using ingredients he considers “under-utilized.” Take papaya, for example. At Ghee Indian Kitchen, Patel aims for diners to see the fruit’s savory side in his spicy papaya salad, comprising his homegrown papaya, cucumber, green mango, onion, tomato, peanuts, kashmiri chilis, and lime. “It is amazing,” he says.
Ingredients, menus, and flavor profiles aside, environmental sustainability has been meaningful to Patel since the early part of his career. “Sustainability has changed my life,” he says. “It is better for carbon emissions. You don’t have to ship all over the world, and at the same time small farmers are helped. One farmer grew cucumbers just for me. Sustainability has such personal impact, and it supports small farmers with opportunities.”
Patel admits that even with three successful restaurants, he’s always dreaming up his next concept—especially alongside partner Mohamed “Mo” Alkassar, a founding member of Alpareno Restaurant Group. But for now, he’s focused on nurturing the sustainability measures he’s worked so hard to put into place in his kitchens and at Rancho Patel. “Some people don’t do it right because it takes more work. I do it and love it,” he says. “Sustainability resulting in fine farm-to-table fare has become a lifestyle for me.”
It’s a lifestyle that suits Patel perfectly. “I never intended to have a farm,” he admits. “But I take great pains with everything I grow. I control the quality and how the final product ends. It is so gratifying for me to see a seed grow and then to give our dining guests the best experience.”
Down on the Farm
Farming in Florida doesn’t have to be hard. Create your own farm-to-fork experience with chef Niven Patel’s tips.
Soil is Everything: Nourishing the soil at Rancho Patel starts with mushrooms from Sublicious Farms. “It’s full of great nutrients,” Patel says.
Not Too Wet, Not Too Dry: When you’re starting seeds, Patel advises, do overhead watering. As your crops grow, though, you’ll want to convert to a drip system. “When you water the leaves, it brings more pests,” Patel says. “Drip irrigation also conserves water.”
Pests be Gone: Patel eschews the use of pesticides, preferring to apply neem oil to keep insects at bay.
Eat (and Plant) Your Veggies: When it comes to tomatoes, Patel grows two varieties: Everglades tomatoes (larger) and Sun Gold tomatoes (smaller).
Get Fruity: “I would recommend starting with papaya and mangoes,” Patel says. “They grow really well in South Florida.”
Find Power in Flowers: To keep things low maintenance, Patel suggests new gardeners try growing sunflowers and marigolds. They attract bees and other pollinators, and are great companion plants for many fruits and vegetables.