Chef Tim Walker at Kappa Kappa Gamma, Butler University, has become a bit of a local legend here within the College Chefs community. He’s living his dream, cultivating 13 acres of land between Indianapolis and Bloomington, Indiana. I sat down with him after a ‘Taco Tuesday’ lunch rush, and before his afternoon plans to finish building a few greenhouses. He shared his amazing journey and advice for anyone wishing to create a farm-to-table experience on their own terms.
In the Beginning...
“When I started 10 years ago [the land] was pretty rough,” Tim explained. But now he is enjoying the fruits of his labor! 1-foot tall trees that he planted are now standing 8-12 feet tall. He’s even gone so far as to change the chemistry of the soil, transforming about 5 acres of the land into really good dirt. “Good dirt” may sound like an oxymoron. The nutrients and ph levels of the soil directly impact the quality of the plants and, in turn, the taste of the fruits and vegetables.
Chef Tim grew up picking tomatoes from his grandmother’s garden. He’s always maintained a family of plants, even cultivating a mini potted garden when he was living in an apartment. But his motivation to expand his operation to THIS level really stems from the kitchen. “As a chef, I was sick of produce quality,” he commented on the low nutrition levels and use of pesticide use that has become the norm in America today. “These chemicals, they never go away once you put them in your body. [By growing your own produce] you’re controlling the product start to finish.”
He lives by the old adage:
When you go to make a meal, don’t take a list to the market. Go to the market and get the BEST ingredients. Don’t over cook or over spice and… voila.
“You can’t make potato soup out of bad potatoes, it just won't work. It really simplifies things if you’ve got great stuff to work with.” He detailed the experience of heading out with anchovies and parmesan in hand, making Caesar salad with whole leaves right there in the garden. Anyone who’s experienced the euphoria of ingesting mother earth’s fruit straight from the source knows how life changing it can be.
Part of the Journey
Through learning curves and struggles, Chef Tim has created a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment. After the local animals ate everything his first year, he created an area on the west-end of his farm that is “critter-friendly.” This area includes growing clovers, sunflowers, mallow, and more. He’s planting food for the animals so they leave his crops alone.
His long culinary career spans back to 1978. From flipping burgers, to feeding upwards of 60,000 Indianapolis Colts Fans, to tending to a wide variety of tastes as a personal chef, you could say he’s been around the culinary block. The man who calls his time at a Japanese steakhouse “incredible schooling” has found a home at Butler University. “This is it. The hours are so conducive to running a successful growing operation. Typically, that is quite the challenge when juggling the 70/80 hours a week that’s common of a head chef in a restaurant."
Every day is a new challenge and there's an amazing opportunity to interact with the women who enjoy each meal. Chef Tim relayed, “They always ask, ‘Why does the food taste so good?!’ and I always respond, ‘Is there another way to make it?”
Incredibly fulfilled but ever humble, Chef Tim always reminds his team, “You’re only as good as your last meal.”
Advice by the Numbers
Are you interested in growing your own food, but don’t have 13 acres of land to spare? Are you a chef with a busy schedule? Do it on a small scale! By breaking down the numbers, the yield becomes simple. 1 acre is 43,500 sq ft. For reference a tomato plant needs about 4 to 5 sq. ft to be happy. Corn or lettuce can yield you about $1 per sq ft. With one acre of land, you can see a return of $43,500. With even just a quarter of an acre, there’s an expected return of $10,000.
Chef Tim manages his massive farm by breaking it down into small 100 sq. ft areas, and moving on one by one. Using recycled cardboard from the kitchen on the land, he’s able to create a natural weed suppressant and feed the worms that are amazing for regenerating dirt. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that soil is alive.” By using recycled materials, you’re not constantly tilling the land. In turn you don’t demolish the dirt and can let the worms build it up.
Fruits of Labor
"By growing your own fruits, veggies, and herbs, you can be assured of what you’re doing and using. There’s a different taste and texture to your meals," Chef Tim said. He speaks of using berries so fresh that you can, "taste summer in the jelly!"
Chef Tim is an incredible example of a man living his passion and demonstrating work-life balance. A man of nature, he’s given up many of his outdoor hobbies while his passion for growing has exploded. However, he still does make time to get out and play. He’s currently planning a fishing trip for the early spring months.
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