A Social Recipe for Food that Matters

March 10, 2010

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director


Once inside the unassuming entrance of Roberta’s, if you can cast your gaze past the wood fired stove and pizza gurus, let your olfactory senses take in something beyond the sweet aroma of ricotta pancakes sopping up maple syrup, and put down your mason jar of local beer, you will see, hear and experience the backyard urban oasis – a farming oasis that is. But don’t look out, look up. There is where you will find the first of the rooftop greenhouses.


The hoop greenhouse is built on top of a shipping container that is fitted out as a radio station (more on that later). Another captures waste heat from the condenser unit for the walk-in refrigerator.

ship cont1

The semi vacant lot next door is also being transformed into greenhouse space that will tie into a fledgling compost operation. Look closely as the construction of this greenhouse and you will find yourself peering into salvaged factory windows.

indust windows

And just when you think the holistic, closed loop vision can’t get any better, you learn that Sarah Trogdon is making soaps from the tallow and oils from the restaurant that are mixed with herbs from the garden (see Goldies Soap).

The brains, brawn and owners behind Roberta’s are Chris Parachini and Brandon Hoy. In a partnership with Ben Flanner of the Brooklyn Grange Farm they come with much more than a dream of “urban farm to fork,” they come armed with a business plan with teeth.

Chris Parachini
Chris Parachini

They are in the beginning stages of scaling-up this restaurant garden roof venture into a 7 acre Brooklyn rooftop urban farming operation (that’s just for starters). The produce will be sold at a local farmer’s market, and clients like Roberta’s will likely be able to source about 80% of their produce from the Brooklyn Grange Farm in a few years time.

hoop1 paul2 mixed green trays

Wait, before you think that this is this some urban warrior plot to cut out the rural farmer, you need to take in the full story. This enterprise is about connecting people to food, and people to people. It is about creating community assets and efficiently using local resources. It is about transforming underutilized urban hardscapes to grow food, while building better relationships with rural farmers to supply the elements that cannot come easily from the urban farm; for example, the meat that comes from farm animals. In fact, Patrick Martins of Slow Food USA fame is part of a growing movement of niche food distributors interested in saving the family farm and diverse livestock. His business, Heritage Foods USA, specializes in selling heritage pigs; and as he says, you save them by eating them. One look at Roberta’s menu tells you how they are a saving grace in this cause.

heritage radio

Sure, there is a greater conversation we all need to have about “eating animals.” Jonathan Safran Foer’s book of this title is a MUST read on this subject, but conversation is just another thing that Roberta’s is serving up. Heritage Radio Network is in its first year of operation and the programming seems to be growing exponentially (maybe there is some magic in broadcasting below a greenhouse). I got there in time to listen in to the end of Anne Saxelby’s Cutting the Curd show (Saxelby Cheese “offers a premier selection of American farmstead cheese”), and on this day she had women cheesemongers from Formaggio Essex (NYC), the Formaggio Kitchen (Boston), and Berkeley’s Pasta Shop talking about their retail adventures – but all share a commitment to farmstead cheeses. The Heritage Radio Network programs are all about the community conversation we need to have around food, land and people.

There was something else about this place that was stimulating – it was the admiration that everyone had for the rich diversity in life (ecological, social, etc.). Then Chris captured it in words, he said that the success comes from fact that the operation is part science/business and part art. That was the clarifying moment. I looked around again and saw the artistry in the vibrant urban palette — it was evident in the cuisine and building design, in the social ventures, and in the patchwork of innovators and community builders who care about all the different entry points that take us to healthy food. The artistry is the secret ingredient in so many social recipes – and the one that does not get captured on food labels. We can extract urban farming models and best practices from site to site around the globe, but the successful recipe requires a pinch of local artistry. Roberta’s is a culinary canvas I encourage you to take in.

pizza1 inside window bike

window and column origami lights

What would you add to this recipe? Please join us in conversation here and at Heritage Radio Network.