Executive Chef Karsten Hart of Castle Hill Inn & Resort
“One of our core values is doing the right thing, which means being a part of the community and being sustainable,” says Chef Karsten Hart. The California native, who has led the culinary team at Castle Hill Inn & Resort in Newport for the past five years, looks to the onsite vegetable and herb gardens to inspire his strictly seasonal menus. It’s a luxury not lost on him.
“In California, I went to the farmers’ market three times a week and wrote the menu right there,” he says. Today, he simply takes a few steps outside his kitchen for a yeoman’s bounty.
Though Castle Hill’s gardens were planted before he joined the team, Hart has been instrumental in expanding their yield. He’s capitalized on the unique microclimate afforded on the peninsula that straddles the place where the Atlantic Ocean meets Narragansett Bay.
“We certainly take into consideration that we’re right on the ocean with a cooler temperature,” he says. “In the summer, it’s not as warm as it might be in Providence. We don’t have problems growing … the big thing that hurts us is if we have a storm come through and get a lot of sea spray.”
In sum, Castle Hill boasts six raised beds, two large herb gardens and a small area designated for garlic. “It’s probably less than a half-acre, but we hope to expand on that in the future,” says Hart.
In order to maximize the growing season to make sure a well-rounded offering of seasonal herbs and vegetables is available, Hart pulls together a like-minded team to strategize before planting.
“Myself and my chef de cuisine sat down with the groundskeepers and started planning,” he explains. “There’s a lot of opportunity to grow on a 40-acre property.”
In a year’s time, the garden can yield the standard finds you may plant in your own garden: mint, orange mint, garlic, thyme, Thai basil, lemon basil, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. But there’s also some less common finds like muckweed, garlic scapes and purslane.
“I always joke and say it’s a weed but it has a lemony flavor,” says Hart of purslane. He tosses the herb with lemon juice, which adds “sort of a sorrel acidity to it,” then chops it and uses it in grains, including couscous.
The fall harvest typically includes squash, broccoli, garlic, chard, collard greens, lettuce, red leaf lettuce, rainbow carrots, numerous varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, lamb’s quarters (also known as goosefoot), French breakfast radishes and icicle radishes.
The garden project has not only broadened the restaurant’s menu but also Hart’s mind.
“It’s fascinating to grow it yourself. I know what micro sorrel is but I have never grown it before. It’s really about getting back to basics,” he says. “I went to culinary school because I love food and I love excellent food … Any good chef is going to tell you if you can pull it out of the ground, it’s going to be better than pulling it out of the box from a produce company. It’s really rewarding."
The rewards are many. Fresh dishes are what in part have earned the restaurant at Castle Hill Inn an enviable reputation, but Hart says it makes business sense with a beneficial trickle-down effect. Staff sells specials “like crazy,” he describes, and specials with ingredients grown on-site cost considerably less than ordered produce from outside farms. “Might be a little more time consuming, but it’s more profitable,” he explains.
In keeping with his sustainable ethos and cost-saving acumen, cisterns throughout the property collect rainwater that is used to water the gardens.
What the team does not grow on site they typically buy from local farms. Hart describes Rhode Island’s progressive local food movement and prospering cooperative programs, like Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile delivery service, as groundbreaking. Hart says he and Chef de Cuisine Lou Rossi will log on to the Market Mobile site, a portal that connects chefs with local farms for direct order, and “play around,” brainstorming on seasonal menu ideas.
For example, last summer, the onsite plethora of cucumbers and Market Mobile’s ample tomato offerings from area farmers inspired a memorable, simple but savory garden salad featuring cucumbers and tomatoes tossed in sun-dried tomato vinaigrette and topped with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“What better thing to have on The Lawn?” he asks, referring to Castle Hill’s rolling green expanse overlooking the sea.
The culinary team also stays in touch with farmers at places like nearby Sweet Berry Farm, located in the next town over. Last fall, the team caught wind that the farm was having a banner apple season. The result was an innovative dessert: black pepper apple cotton candy.
“We put a little twist on it but were true to the ingredients,” says Hart. “Sometimes you can be playful but other times you have to be reverent to the technique.”
Regional specialties are especially inspiring to the chef.
“As an outsider coming into New England, one of the most unique things I’ve found is gooseberries,” he says. With the berry’s brown butter tones, Hart has made gooseberry parfaits, gooseberry jams and even used the fruit to garnish Castle Hill’s charcuterie plate.
“It’s exciting to have guests that may have never seen [gooseberries] and to experience them in New England—it makes the experience richer and more rewarding.”
Castle Hill Inn
590 Ocean Dr., Newport, RI