Chef Chat: Eric LeVine of Mr. Crabby’s Craft Kitchen + Bar

The James Beard Award-nominated chef and “Chopped” champion has set his sights on something new: a hydroponic herb garden in full view of guests.

Among the herbs LeVine grows are basil, rosemary, cilantro, red sorrel, oregano, and chives. Photo courtesy of chef LeVine

When he was working at Le Petit Café in France, all Eric LeVine had to do for fresh herbs was step outside into the alleyway. That’s where head chef Jean-Louis Le Massion was growing sorrel, sage, lemon thyme, even wild asparagus. “The alleyway was the perfect setting,” says LeVine. “It got enough light during the day, and enough cool moisture.”

At Mr. Crabby’s Craft Kitchen + Bar in Randolph, the setting and accents are slightly different, but the herbs are just as fresh. And that’s because when LeVine took over the restaurant this June, the James Beard Award-nominated CIA grad and “Chopped” champion had set his sights on something unexpected: a hydroponic herb garden in full view of guests.

“I’ve wanted to do it for a long time,” says LeVine. “We were already working with local sourcing, and I had the space,” he adds, as if building a 20-foot wall garden with 16 individual troughs seven feet from a brick oven was the next logical step. It didn’t hurt that LeVine knew a guy with the Instagram handle @HydroponicJohnny (hydroponics expert and urban farmer John Evangelista). He also had close ties with Donaldson Farms in Hackettstown. “It’s a blessing to learn from them. I can knock on their door and ask them how they did something.”

So the herb garden went up (literally) without a hitch, part of an inclusive, immersive restaurant culture anchored by an open kitchen. “Food is very personal,” LeVine says. He uses the vertical garden as a kind of billboard for the menu, for his own creative predilections at any given time, for the life cycles behind the food we eat. “I love educating, showing people right here in the open kitchen what’s growing.”

Of course there are practical reasons for the garden. “It gives me the flexibility to grow what I want at a reduced cost,” says LeVine, who planted extra sage and thyme for Thanksgiving, but tends to rely heavily on basil (for house marinara and pizza), mint, thyme, sorrel, oregano, red sorrel, cilantro and chives. “As the seasons go, I’m going to play around more. I want to grow different things, unique to each season,” he says. “As a cook, I have to explore.”

He’s also learning as a gardener. “The basil needs more light, so it has to sit in one spot. Thyme doesn’t, but you have to keep it away from the heat of the brick oven. The sorrel needs to be as far away from everything as you can get.” Lucky for LeVine and his restless creativity, herbs have a shorter growing time. “If I want to shift [an herb] out quickly, I can replant, and within a couple weeks, I have what I’m looking for.”

Sometimes the growth of the herbs can change what LeVine is looking for. “It’s influenced specials for sure. I look at what we’re growing, play with garnishes. I can pick some chives and chop them onto a dish, or maybe I take some sage and flash-fry it.” Pizzas coming out of Crabby’s brick oven are finished “with basil right there, literally fresh-picked.” That visual is huge for diners, but LeVine insists the brighter flavors are the biggest surprises. “I’ve never been a smoker, but my dad smoked and he stopped, and he was like ‘Oh my god, everything tastes great!’ The flavor profiles are massive, they explode in your mouth. It’s really cool to be able to have that impact on a dish. It’s inspiring.”

LeVine’s already planning his next round of herbs—lemon thyme, like chef Le Massion had in France, Thai and Opal basil, garlic threads and ramps, which he plans to start on the wall and finish growing outside. He also wants to attend Farmer Lee Jones’s Culinary Vegetable Institute in Ohio, and meanwhile parlays insomnia into free time to plan an outdoor tomato hothouse.

As temperatures drop, LeVine will garden in his restaurant. But that doesn’t mean he’ll stay inside. “Once it’s consistently cold, I want to do an igloo bar outside.”

Mr. Crabby’s Craft Kichen + Bar is located at 399 Route 10 East in Randolph. 973-343-7688.

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