by Sarah J.F. Braley | April 26, 2016

Sarah J.F. BraleyThe kitchen of the 1,544-room Hilton Chicago Hotel is a rare place in the hospitality industry, where the average tenure, according to chef Mario Garcia, is around 14 years. Garcia himself has worked at the hotel for 20 years. An ongoing initiative that began last year, however, welcomes some new rotating workers: two interns to help manage the property's roof gardens.

Chef Mario Garcia, Hilton ChicagoThe students come from the Chicago Botanic Garden's Windy City Harvest (WCH) program, which offers a nine-month certificate program and apprenticeship in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture to those enrolled at the City Colleges of Chicago's Daley College sattelite campus, the Arturo Velasquez Institute. Typical students are those looking to change careers, young people with a history of incarceration and those with other barriers to employment who are seeking better options.

The Hilton Chicago's partnership with WCH started in 2014, when the hotel began purchasing produce from the program's farms, which comprise 11 facilities including the rooftop of McCormick Place, the city's big convention center, atop which 20,000 square feet are devoted to plantings (check out the garden cam here). During the summer, about 40 percent of the hotel's lettuce comes from WCH.

"When I was introduced to the program, the first thing we did was work with them at one of their farms," says chef Garcia. "Last spring they were producing some really tasty misuna lettuce. We probably bought about 200 pounds a week." A hotel-internship trial started about the same time. "We asked if the interns could work with us on our rooftop garden; they were our gardeners for 2015. It worked very well; they had a very good work ethic."

Hilton Chicago's rooftop gardenThe roof garden had a good year in 2015, producing tomatoes and a lot of herbs, such as mint, rosemary, basil, lemon balm, arugula, thyme, sage, oregano, marjoram, chives and parsley. "We also had microgreens — they have a very quick turnaround. It was a constant rotation and it worked very well," says Garcia. "We also added two beehives that the interns were responsible for handling. We got a little bit more than three gallons of honey, very good for our first time. We packaged them in little jars and gave them as gifts, and also used it for special menus."

Work for this year is starting now, thanks to temperate weather. Garcia plans to expand the garden beyond the 85 containers seeded last year. "We're going to use at least another 40 planters and have two more beehives for a total of four; we likely will still have two gardeners."

Examples of how the produce has been used include an appetizer with local cheese on Windy City farm greens; and arugula and mustard greens with mozzarella, little tomatoes and a simple vinaigrette. For a main course, short ribs have been served with pureed carrots, roasted beets, peppers and vegetable ingredients, all picked at the farm.

Garcia loves how engaged guests are with the program. "We posted in the lobby that we have a rooftop garden, and people are very interested in seeing it and walking through it," he says. "This is going to be our fifth year, and the interest from guests to find out how we make it work has been the biggest surprise."

WCH is not the only source Garcia uses, because his needs are so large. "When the growing season starts, there are several farmers around us that we have begun to work with," he says. "There are weeks that I'll use 500 pounds of asparagus."