This is a version of an article also published by the Financial Times.
Just after we finished coffee at the Harwood Arms in Fulham, where the exemplary British food under chefs Alex Harper and Brett Graham has gained a Michelin star, Charles Dowson turned to the barman and said, ‘I’ll be back later to water the garden.’
Dowson then drove me in his worn Mercedes estate – with bags of compost in the boot – to the second garden he takes care of, at The Imperial pub on Kings Road. This bright corner site is the first of what its owners, Kate MacWhirter, Alan Turtill and chef Jason Lee Cole, hope will be a small group of restaurants.
These two fruit and vegetable gardens, supplemented by his long-standing allotment nearby, form the nucleus of Dowson’s budding business setting up gardens in restaurants. This is a considerably smaller radius than the one Dowson used to supervise, as a successful estate agent around Notting Hill and Holland Park. But it is providing a great deal of satisfaction for him – and it all came about because of a surplus of calabrese.
Two years ago, Dowson called into the Harwood Arms to see whether the then chef, Anthony Hill, could find a home on the menu for these easy-growing brassicas. Hill visited the allotment to confirm their quality, which led in turn to Dowson touring the flat roof on which the pub-restaurant was growing salad, fruit and vegetables.
He was not impressed. Dowson, now 60, had grown up in East Anglia where his grandmother – from whom he has obviously inherited the necessary patience for growing vegetables – ran a market garden. Dowson found himself offering to take over the Harwood Arms patch, and his offer was promptly accepted.
Dowson confesses that his current job is far more physically demanding than his former life as an estate agent, but jokes that ‘fortunately I am married to a physiotherapist’. But as much as watching the chefs relish the fruits of his labour, he enjoys the nurturing aspect. ‘This begins in early February with seeding the chillies, tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse. The greatest job satisfaction comes from growing celeriac successfully – something I adore. They have an eight-month growing season, so a long time to go to seed, and it is only when you lift them in October that you know whether you have a crop at all.’
Now and throughout the summer, the Harwood’s rooftop garden – about eight metres by six, with a skylight over the dining room below – is so densely packed with all things edible that walking around it is quite precarious.
Two large trenches are full of radishes that go into a pork dish with wild mushrooms. There are beetroots and carrots that because of their sweetness go well with a warm salad, lamb belly roll and fig leaf powder from a tree that is also on the roof. French beans are planted to run up on canes alongside tubs of sweetcorn, as well as strawberries (Dowson predicts a bumper crop this year), blackcurrants and blueberries. Polystyrene cartons, in which fresh fish and meat were delivered, have been recycled to provide beds for numerous herbs, including an abundance of mint for the lamb dishes.
As the summer progresses, heirloom tomatoes and butternut squash will be trained over the skylight to provide shade for the customers below, while Dowson is also hoping that a repeat of last year’s sunshine will allow him to replicate his success with two large ripe watermelons he proudly grew from seed.
All of this, and in particular the fragile mustard flowers that will be used in a dish of pickled and flamed mackerel with an orange and fennel salad, are much appreciated by the chefs. Since the Harwood Arms was originally a plain pub before it turned more gastronomic, the kitchen is located on the first floor, which means that the chefs are no more than a brief walk from Dowson’s bounty.
Alex Harper notes that this combination of freshness and convenience is rare in London: ‘I came to appreciate this when I was cooking at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in the midst of the Oxfordshire countryside but I never thought I would be able to replicate in the centre of town the taste of produce taken straight from the earth. Charles’s hard work allows us to do just that.’
This rooftop location comes with two challenges. The wind in the spring can dry out the leaves of the tomato and French bean plants, while come the summer the whole area becomes something of a heat trap. Over at The Imperial, where Dowson has planted out at ground level, the potential damage is more of the man-made variety: tubs full of olive trees are used as ashtrays and the mint plants are invariably stripped of all their leaves – presumably, Dowson quips, for cocktails.
Word of Dowson’s green fingers is spreading, with several other chefs and restaurateurs approaching him to see how he can best make use of their flat roofs. ‘I’m less expensive than a PR company’, he explains, ‘but I think it is the best possible PR for any restaurant to be able to say that everything that grows in its garden ends up on the plate.’
The Harwood Arms 68 Walham Grove, London SW6 1QP; tel +44 (0)207 386 1847
The Imperial 577 King’s Road, London SW6 2EH; tel +44 (0)207 736 6081