Many of the best chefs in St. Louis have something in common: At one time or another, they've cooked with the vibrant flavors cultivated at Dirty Girl Farms.
Despite its name, that is no sprawling agricultural operation. Instead, it's a small patch of earth in Anne Lehman's Tower Grove South backyard, where she grows herbs, edible flowers, leaves, roots, fruits and vegetables. The "farms" in Dirty Girl Farms, Lehman explains, isn't a plural noun — it's a verb that explains what she's doing.
As for the "dirty" part, that describes the state she is often in after a day's work digging in the dirt, a state Lehman describes as pure bliss. "I am outside, it is peaceful, my company is good — birds, bees, butterflies, worms and a whole bunch of other loud beneficial insects — the snacks are always good and I get to get my hands dirty."
From her modest patch of earth, Lehman has grown a client list that reads like a "Who's Who" of top St. Louis chefs: Ben Poremba, Ben Grupe, Tello Carreon, Chris Krzysik, Gerard Craft, Sarah and Nick Blue, Mike Miller, William Pauley, Michael Gallina, Nate Hereford, Josh Charles, Summer Wright, David Rosenfeld, Heather Stone, Chris Bork, Kevin Nashan, Josh Galliano, Matt Bessler, Sherrie Castellano, Wil Pelly, Mark Sanfilippo and Robin Wheeler. Lehman also sells to florists, who covet her unique specimens for visual variety, amazing fragrances and custom edible arrangements.
In recent years, specialty farms have been planted across the country, many in small, urban environments like Lehman's. Atypical crops such as herbs, seeds, flowers, microgreens, mushrooms, maple syrup, honey and even seafood can be grown in backyards, on rooftops, in container gardens and even foraged in local wild spaces. The key to success is finding a niche that isn't already occupied, while working with a crop that grows well in your climate and is in demand.
Lehman's Dirty Girl Farms was licensed in St. Louis as the 15th Ward's first urban farm in June 2012. The operation quickly cultivated a client list, almost without even trying.
It began in earnest when Lehman brought a sample bouquet to her neighbor, John Fausz, who was then a bartender at Olio. Fausz never even got to use the floral herbs. The restaurant's owner, Ben Poremba, walked in, smelled the fragrant aroma, picked up the sweet mace and asked, "What is this?" He then requested a list of everything Lehman was growing. He placed his first order the very next day — sweet mace, pineapple sage, mojito mint, celery umbels, fennel umbels and Cuban oregano.
From then on, Lehman supplied herbs to Olio's sister restaurant, Elaia, on a weekly basis. Chef Josh Charles, who's since left Elaia, made what would prove to be one of Lehman's favorite things created from her plants — a candied sweet mace. Says Charles, "Anne's herbs add that final bit of complexity to my dishes."
Poremba's newest restaurant, Nixta, features Lehman's products as well. Executive chef Tello Carreon enjoys using the stalks of herbs such as geranium, pineapple verbena and pineapple sage, oft-discarded parts of the plants that other chefs might never consider using. With the geranium, for example, Carreon simmered the leaves and stalks in a simple syrup, vacuum-sealed them and let them sit for three months. In December, what emerged was an intensely infused flavor he used for a winter bread pudding.
And Poremba and Charles proved to be good people to know. They quickly introduced Lehman to Kevin Nashan, owner of Sidney Street Cafe and Peacemaker Lobster and Crab Company. Things really took off from there.
Mike Randolph, proprietor of Randolfi's, Público and Half & Half also met Lehman through a friend. "We were invited to tour her backyard. She walks you around, picking this and that for you to taste," he says. "She's an encyclopedia. It's really cool to have her as a resource." Since that first visit, Randolph and his chefs have ordered from her regularly. During the summer months, Randolph will often call to find out what's peaking in a given week so he can plan his menus around those flavors.
Last summer, Lehman mentioned she had some cilantro going to seed. Randolph took all of it, using it primarily as a unique flavoring in Público's ceviche. The dish proved a tremendous hit with his guests, he says.
"She has a lot of esoteric things I've never used before, which inspires us to go into research mode," he says. "She doesn't grow traditional basil, for example, but tulse basil, something unique or lost to standard cultivation. ... I just order things to kick our chefs in the butt — to challenge them."
Michael Gallina, chef/owner at Vicia, the much-anticipated restaurant soon to open in the Cortex area, values this aspect of Lehman's operation as well. "She's not just growing basil and mint," he says. "She's growing fifteen herbs that you've never heard of and fifteen that you've always wanted more access to, but can hardly ever find locally." He relishes the opportunities afforded by her distinctive offerings. "Have you ever cleaned your hands after a course with a towel steamed in rose geranium? It's magical."