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Summer Jo's: Evolutionary eatery

Hours before the first customers arrive at 10 a.m., before cooks fire up the grills, before bakers mix the first batch of bread, there's plenty to do at Summer Jo's.

Araucana chickens forage in the fields while bees from nearby hives descend on flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables. Workers start weeding the organic farm's six acres and harvesting lush produce to supply the restaurant and local farmers markets.

Relishing the daily flurry of activity, owner Nancy Groth rises at 5 a.m. to oversee Summer Jo's myriad operations in all their smallest details. Like her restaurant's mascot — a buzzing bee — Groth flits from restaurant to bakery to berry patch to chicken coops and back. And like a bee browsing for nectar, she doesn't cultivate a distinct routine so much as a symbiotic relationship with every entity on the Grants Pass property.

"It's all evolutionary," says Groth. "Every year we have a project."

"A building would say, 'I should be this; I should be that.'

"The garden talks to you, too," adds Groth. "It just comes from living on the property."

Before Groth and husband Mike Swaine took up residence 11 years ago on Upper River Road Loop, the tract was farmed organically by a German immigrant family. Groth and Swaine renewed the farm's certification with Oregon Tilth, diversified food crops to more than 100 types and established a true farm-to-table eatery before the concept became popular in Southern Oregon.

"People talk about food miles," says Groth, referring to the environmental and nutritional consequences of transporting, storing and distributing food.

"A lot of our food is foot miles."

Farm manager Marggy Wheeler travels just a few hundred yards to deliver the restaurant's fresh raspberries, salad greens, summer squash and a handful of the season's first tomatoes. The surplus, along with blue-shelled eggs and artisan bread, is set aside for the Saturday growers markets in Grants Pass and Ashland, as well as Summer Jo's own on-site farm stand.

"It's pretty rare for a restaurant to grow its own food," says Tracy Harding, former manager of Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Saturday market, which Summer Jo's started attending last year.

"I'd say that they're on a homesteading scale; it's just that their homestead happens to be a restaurant."

The prospect of a farmer's lifestyle lured Groth, a former managing editor for MacUser magazine, and Swaine from Santa Cruz, Calif. Groth's younger sister, Patty Groth, had moved to the Rogue Valley a decade earlier and founded Ashland's Morning Glory.

"Patty's very creative in her menu development," says Nancy Groth. "Certainly, that was very inspiring."

Although Groth lacked her sister's formal culinary training, she drew on a lifelong passion for food, wine and entertaining to summon Summer Jo's from a motley assortment of outbuildings. The remodeled and refurbished rooms share an eclectic, shabby-chic sensibility that could grace the pages of Country Living magazine. In fact, Gourmet magazine has lauded Groth's efforts, as well as Wine Spectator, whose August issue counted Summer Jo's among "the world's best restaurants for wine lovers."

"We try to create an experience," says Groth, citing the culinary influence of Alice Waters, often credited with pioneering the farm-to-table movement at her landmark Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse.

"All of our employees kind of embrace the vision," adds Groth.

But the low-key culinary scene of Southern Oregon failed to captivate a few "top chefs," six of whom came and went before Joy Cyr stepped up from sous chef to command the kitchen three years ago. Cyr has continued the tradition of showcasing the farm's seasonal produce in signature dishes like ratatouille with sustainable staples, such as Anderson Ranch lamb and Painted Hills free-range, organic beef. As many ingredients as possible come from the property and are organic, says Groth, adding that some foodstuffs simply can't be obtained from organic sources or for feasible prices.

Groth, nevertheless, embarked on an ambitious mission three years ago to augment her bread with organic flour from homegrown wheat. Three leased acres adjoining the farm can't begin to meet the bakery's needs. But the tall, golden heads of grain standing ready for harvest illustrate possibilities.

"I find their whole thing a little, subtle education," says Harding, who works in the Oregon State University Extension's small farms program.

Paths through Summer Jo's main vegetable patch are a subtle invitation for diners to develop closer relationships with their food, while benches arranged around a lily pond provide serene spots to observe the farm's intricate web of life. While organic agriculture is Summer Jo's primary means of caring for the Earth, the business employs numerous strategies for reducing, reusing, recycling and "being really, super efficient," says Groth. Take-out containers are recyclable, and food waste is composted on site for use in the fields, she says.

"We're feeding the soil, which feeds the plants, which feed the people," says Groth. "It all is just kind of a circle."

Wild Coho with Summer Jo pinot noir braised red cabbage, potato latkes, topped with arugula, beet and pear chutney.