Roof-To-Table Food Revolution: An Interview with Chef John Mooney

By: Michele Wolfson

Tucked away in the West Village is a spot where one can dine on very local, organic vegetables in an innovative "rooftop-to-table" way that has never been done before- that is, until now. Bell Book & Candle uses aeroponic towers to grow its menu ingredients on the rooftop, located six flights above the basement kitchen. Talk about using local products!

As we enter the winter season, the cold weather might not seem ideal for an eatery that uses produce that is grown in Manhattan during this time of year, but the rooftop garden actually supplies Executive Chef John Mooney's restaurant with 60% of his produce on a year-round basis.Named after the 1958 James Stewart-Kim Novak film, the eatery specializes in upscale American comfort-food fare, providing dishes like zucchini flowers stuffed with wild mushroom and goat cheese and grass-fed steak tartare with heirloom potato crisps.

The soil-free system of growing towers has started a food revolution. Instead of using soil, the crops on the Bell Book & Candle roof are grown in cups on the sides of plastic towers and the plants are regularly sprayed with a nutrient-rich water solution. While many restaurants are talking the talk that they use local, organic, and sustainable products- BB&C takes this notion to a whole new level. I was proud and honored to have the opportunity to interview chef Mooney about America's first rooftop-to-table food establishment.

Executive Chef and partner John Mooney shared his inspiration and I was interested to learn more about his philosophy. Mooney is inspiring and has me convinced that this aeroponic system is the future of affordable healthy food in the city, not only for restaurants but for homeowners as well.

What inspired you to become a chef?

What inspired me to become a Chef initially was the love of food. Then it was the team environment, like-minded people, travel and culture. It became my lifestyle not my job.

Where did your concept for BB&C come from?

The concept of BB&C comes from me traveling all over the world and having American food not be respected. So, I wanted to do a straightforward American restaurant in a (somewhat) contemporary fashion using domestic ingredients.

What inspired you to start this roof-to-table concept?

The inspiration for the roof to table concept came from me seeking out sources for ingredients over many years. I spent so much time trying to develop direct relationship that I eventually became the source. I also owned a plantation with I conventionally farmed. After not much success and plenty of hard work, I looked to technology to assist. At this point I converted to hydroponics. I also had experience in India with our own 120-acre farm supplying our restaurant.

What inspires your menu? Are you driven by anything specific? Is it seasonal, cultural or local?

Ingredients inspire my menu; I use what I have; I print menus in house. I make major seasonal changes; minor changes happen as frequently as everyday. I do also try to stay local. Fish and a few cheeses, I compromise on because I like to support certain methods or really like the product.

How was it received when you brought the first organic restaurant to India?

PURE restaurant in India was received tremendously well. We had great support from the Bollywood and big business communities of Mumbai. We were also very respected in the restaurant community as a pioneer of contemporary cuisine for India. I was great fun.

If somebody wanted to create a home-to-table concept, how feasible is that and what are some suggestions that you have?

A home to table concept is very feasible. You just have to make sure you get adequate sunlight; morning sun afternoon shade works best for most plants. Start with herbs and then lettuce and after you build some confidence branch out from there. Next, try tomatoes, strawberries and maybe some squash. All depends on how much space you have.

For more information about Chef Mooney and Bell Book & Candle, visit their website here.

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