NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Dominique Macquet, like many chefs, is a wholehearted believer in the local food movement. The distance his fresh herbs travel from farm to table can be measured precisely -- in inches, rather than miles.
Many chefs have kitchen gardens. It's a badge of authenticity in this locavore age. Still, Macquet's garden takes the potager to new heights.
A small, vertical, aeroponic farm is proudly on display in the courtyard of Dominique's on Magazine, the restaurant he opened this spring in a renovated Uptown firehouse.
The garden supplies all the restaurant's fresh herbs. That's an accomplishment, considering that the plants are taking root in a brick-and-concrete space without a speck of soil, and that Macquet blows through bushels of fresh herbs each week. Think 3 1/2 pounds of thyme alone.
Thyme, basil, oregano, mint, peppers and tomato plants grow in oversized wall-mounted window boxes and tall aeroponic towers.
The tower set-up looks like something that would produce food for the Starship Enterprise. Leafy green sprouts pop out of the white, food-grade plastic structures. The system can grow a small farm's worth of plants in a closet-sized space.
There's no dirt, no weeds, no mess.
The plants grow out of whiffle-ball-sized holes slashed in the sides of the 8-foot-tall towers. A nutrient-infused mist irrigates their roots.
The tower system was created by FutureGrowing of Apopka, Fla. Each structure holds up to 44 plants on a base 2 1/2 feet across.
Around the country, air-grown, mist-nourished gardens are becoming popular among gardeners of all sorts looking to exercise their green thumbs in close quarters. A school in New York and restaurants in California use aeroponic systems. In 2011, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport sprouted a vertical garden in the middle of Terminal 3. It provides everything from snap beans to Swiss chard to airport restaurants.
Locally, Rouse's Enterprises LLC made national news when it unveiled a 60-tower aeroponic farm on the roof of its downtown New Orleans grocery store. The Rouses grocery chain sells the vertically grown rosemary, basil and other herbs under the label "Roots on the Rooftop."
Ruby Slipper Café's Marigny location has four aeroponic towers, said Kevin Morgan-Rothschild, whose local company, VertiFarms, installs and operates the systems.
"We want to make New Orleans a city that grows all of the salad greens it consumes," said Morgan-Rothschild, who, with co-founder Doug Jacobs, started VertiFarms. The company installed the systems at Dominique's on Magazine and at Rouses.
The towers are modular structures. Each holds up to 11 growing spots and is anchored by a 25-gallon water reservoir in the base. A pump sends the nutrient-enriched water up through the tower and trickles it over the plants' roots.
"It uses one-tenth of the water you'd use with soil (gardening)," said Jacobs. "You can grow lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons and strawberries using less water and less land."
Seedlings are started in a soil-less growing medium made of natural rock fiber. After a few weeks, they're transplanted into the tower.
The system isn't cheap. Macquet said his five-tower set-up cost about $5,000. Individual units designed for home use start at $499, Jacobs said.
In the long run, Macquet expects the towers to pay for themselves. When Dominique's was in the Maison Dupuy hotel, he said, he bought herbs from big companies which shipped the herbs from California.
"By the time it would get to us, the shelf life would be two days or less," he said. "A pound of thyme was costing me $22. I had to start growing my own."
Macquet spent a dozen years at the hotel restaurant. In 2010, he opened Dominique's on Magazine in a converted shotgun cottage.
Space was tight there. Macquet squeezed an herb garden into the alleyways next to the restaurant and added a few tomato plants to his own front yard -- something his wife, Wendy, didn't appreciate.
That restaurant closed in 2011. Macquet and a new business partner opened one under the same name in the two-story Art Deco building. It now has a cool, modern look -- European white oak floors, concrete bar, video artwork projected on the walls -- that extends into the courtyard. The outdoor dining area is an L-shaped space, hemmed in by tall, white walls that allow for morning sun and afternoon shade.
When he first saw the property, Macquet said he liked the location and the building but couldn't fathom how he could grow a garden there. "How can I have plants when there's nothing but concrete?" he said.
Rouses' tower farm provided inspiration.
One afternoon, Macquet was perched on tiptoes, stretching to reach a tomato plant growing about two feet above his head. With index finger and thumb, he pinched a tiny sucker, the little side shoot that can sprout in the crux between stem and branch.
Dressed in jeans and an untucked T-shirt, he was doing some gardening before the evening dinner rush.
Macquet estimates he spends about 30 minutes every few days tending the towers. He's taught his staff how to properly prune the herbs and keep the garden worthy of its prominent spot on the patio. VertiFarms also does maintenance on the garden once or twice a week.
"Because it's in such a high-profile area, we're always focused on it staying beautiful," Jacobs said. "We practice good integrated pest management. We don't use any conventional pesticides."
The plants show up all over the restaurant's menu. Five types of basil -- sweet, lime, lemon, purple and Thai basil -- went into a Creole tomato gazpacho recently, and much of the towers' thyme makes its way into Macquet's oven-roasted tomatoes. The garden's Peruvian aji amarillo, scotch bonnet and other peppers have starred in ceviche dishes featuring octopus, conch, red snapper, cobia and other seafood.
In the fall, Macquet plans to plant lettuces. "If I use all of the towers, I could grow romaine, red oak, arugula, mizuna," he said. "It could yield about five pounds of lettuce a week."