An old claw-foot bath filled with rich organic soil and planted out with young strawberries sits proudly at the centre of the kitchen garden at Roberts Restaurant in the Hunter Valley's Tower Estate. The executive chef, American-born George Francisco, couldn't be happier. He'd been tinkering with kitchen gardens for years, turning a car space into a tomato plot at his Newport restaurant, Dish, a decade ago and more recently growing rosemary at fine diner Jonah's, where he headed the kitchen team from 2005-10.
''When Short Black ran a photo of me picking rosemary in the garden at Jonah's, local residents complained I was using the place for agricultural purposes and they shut [the garden] down!''
Finally, in 2011, Francisco stumbled across the right location and an amenable owner and his kitchen garden plans have fallen into place. He enlisted the help of horticulturalist and permaculture practitioner Alisa Fitzpatrick and began planning. Once five rows of grapevines had been cleared for the Hunter Valley plot, Francisco realised it was bigger than he'd envisaged and would need more management than just him and his chefs tending it between lunch and dinner service. Now local helpers, including Fitzpatrick, contribute 35 hours a week.
To decide the plant list, Francisco and Fitzpatrick worked through the chef's menus with close attention to his signature dishes. Some thrived, some didn't and others, such as zucchini flowers, needed to be supplemented by outside sources. Cucumbers were star performers: he harvested 190 kilograms of them last season and had to turn them into pickles and sorbets. Excess produce may be sold at a farm-gate shop in future. At the end of summer the garden met 65 per cent of the kitchen's needs. The figure has fallen as winter has arrived but, with plans for expansion, he hopes to reach 85 per cent by next summer.
While Francisco procrastinated on whether to branch out to having his own chickens, pests chomped through crops but since introducing the poultry, all named after English chefs, the problem has almost vanished.
''Marco, Nigella, Jamie, Heston and the rest of the girls give us about 10 eggs a day, which go straight to the restaurant, and they eat all the kitchen and garden waste,'' he says. ''They also fertilise the soil and scratch up the compost, circulating it through and preparing the area for the next crop.''
The patchwork layout of the plants also reduces loss. ''If a pest sees a whole row of lettuces they think it's a buffet and go crazy, decimating the whole crop, but if you have a bit planted here and there they only see a small takeaway and leave the rest,'' he says.
About six months ago, chef Martin Boetz left Longrain to grow vegetables. The highest point of Boetz's property in Sackville, near Windsor, has gobsmacking views right down the Hawkesbury River but it's on the fertile plain below where he has about 8000 square metres cultivated with vegetables and herbs. He's growing plants with an Asian influence as well as four varieties of bean, potatoes, cavolo nero and peppers. It's nothing other farmers don't grow but he believes he has an edge.
''It's all about freshness. Restaurants buy from me because they have their orders delivered within 24 hours of picking.''
Boetz commuted to the farm for a year after he bought it in November 2011 and moved there last December to immerse himself in the business he's called Cook's Co-op. His client list has built steadily from a start with Longrain to include Four in Hand, Apollo, Ormeggio, Pilu and Chiswick, among others.
''I'm also sourcing produce from other farmers around the area and putting it under my Cook's Co-op label and on-selling it,'' he says. ''I'm getting beautiful small kipflers from Robertson, which took over from my own when they finished. And I'm getting beetroot from a Maltese couple [and] pomegranates, limes and kaffir limes and leaves from another local grower.''
His farm includes another 2.5 hectares on the plain, at present used for turf farming, which he eventually wants to turn over to market gardens with the potential for chefs to have plots dedicated exclusively to their needs.
Peter Gilmore's kitchen garden is more a laboratory where he tests plants, determines what he wants for his restaurant kitchen at Quay, then gets Johnson Farm near Windsor to grow it for him in quantity. At the moment, that farm just supplies Fink Group restaurants - Quay, The Bridge Room and Otto - which between them present plenty of challenges.
''Just at Quay we serve 1200 people a week so when I want to put a tiny radish on a dish and I need three per plate, I'll need two or three deliveries a week of 500 radishes the size of your fingernail,'' Gilmour says. ''To meet our demand, the farm has to plan the seeding, monitor crop rotation and then there's the labour of picking all those tiny plants.''
Given the work involved, when Gilmore decides a plant is going on the menu he must commit to a large order and can't ask the farmer to spend time trying things out for him - hence his home garden lab.
Even now, with summer's bounty long gone, there's an impressive variety of plants in the three beds Gilmore built 18 months ago at the bottom of his garden. He methodically works his way around them, plucking young shoots or flowers to taste, or pulls out jewel-toned root vegetables to marvel at their colour.
''At markets we only get to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's available,'' he says, brushing the soil from a Red Samurai carrot. ''I've been using these in the restaurant as baby carrots but they don't get their full red colour until they're bigger so I'm letting these mature more and thinking about what to do with them. I might turn them into a puree or leave them as a chunk and smoke them.''
He sources seeds from all over the world for this garden, which includes citrus trees, figs, stone fruits and berries - all unusual varieties, of course. A pretty heart-shaped leaf, subtly variegated, is heading Quay's way soon. ''This is silver sorrel; I got the seed from France and it tastes like sour apple.'' Other specimens lighting up Gilmore's world are ice plant, the back of its leaves bumpy with salty, juicy vesicles, and an Italian succulent grass called agretti. The agretti is on the menu at present in a squab and abalone dish but he has much bigger plans for it next season, possibly in a partnership with wallaby tail.
''I'm really interested in rare plants and heirloom varieties. There's so much stuff grown commercially just because it's a fast crop or a good keeper but they're forgetting about flavour and there's a multitude of flavours and colours out there.''
While many gardeners will grow lettuce for its leaves, Gilmore keeps an open mind about a plant's potential. He analyses plants at all stages of development, testing and tasting all the way.
''There are all sorts of possibilities with a plant and you don't know until you grow it and see the whole life cycle.''