Yanni’s Urban Garden

Nicole Kapnison and Co.

Photos by Joy Godfrey

Wisdom is often hard earned, but the true testament of the strength of that wisdom is when it is shared and honored from one generation to the next. Nicole Kapnison was 6 years old when her parents opened Yanni’s in 1993. Since 2011, she and her mother, Chris Komis, have used the accumulated wisdom of those 21 years to modernize and progress to keep pace with the shifting restaurant scene. They wanted to move beyond the “pigeonhole” of just being a Greek restaurant; therefore “Mediterranean Grill” was added to the name in order to embrace all the region’s flavors, from Italy to Morocco. Wines lists were revamped, cocktail menus as well, with drinks using house made syrups and freshly squeezed juices. Every year Nicole set a goal for the restaurant; in 2013, she focused on the renovation of the upscale, chic Lemoni Lounge and in January 2014, she decided to add an urban garden in the back of the restaurant. Yanni’s already boasts a large amount of free parking (often a challenge for Nob Hill patrons on busy weekend nights) and many were suggesting the open space be used for even more parking, but Nicole smartly refused to add more concrete. She suggested the garden to her mom, who urged her to “run with the idea.”

Nicole had been closely observing the farm-to-table movement. “I’m a huge health nut,” she explains when I inquire if there was a personal interest vested in the decision to build a garden. “I like to know where my food is grown and I like to know that it doesn’t have any extra added anything in it. And it’s great to be able to buy local and use organic ingredients, but it’s even better to know we’re the ones growing it and we’re the ones putting it on the table.” But as a restaurateur, she knew she needed the help of an experienced grower.

Farmers tend to be pretty busy folks. College students not only have more time on their hands, they are also often looking for experience and internships. So Nicole put an email blast out to the UNM Sustainability Program and received responses from UNM students Gretchen Garcia (who was in her native Alaska during the interview) and Paloma Sanchez. After several months of organizing and planning the logistics of the garden, construction on the 60 foot long, 2½ foot high raised bed began in May. Gretchen and Paloma went to work leveling the land, building the bed (with untreated wood), adding 15 cubic yards of compost, putting in the irrigation system and finally, planting. Though culling the list was difficult, it was decided the seeds of moon and stars watermelon, ancho and green chiles, sweet cherry and indigo rose tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, beans, lemon cucumbers and a host of herbs would grace the soil. At that point, Gretchen left and Paloma took over for the remaining summer months.

For Paloma, who has also been working on a farm in Santa Fe alongside other permaculturists and gardeners, being on her own was a new experience. “But I’ve learned a lot here [at Yanni’s], especially from Gretchen,” she says. She’d never built raised beds before, and square foot gardening—an urban farming technique used to boost production in a small space—was also new.

“I looked toward these girls to see what they thought was best,” Nicole says.

“Which is nice,” Paloma responds. “It’s good to have that kind of freedom. It’s also very relaxing and it’s very important for a farm or a garden to have that. Because gardening and farming can’t be rushed—it’s a natural process and you’re just helping nature out. It’s not really up to you.”

Yanni's garden dishIn the restaurant business, there is no lack of anxiety and the addition of the garden has been therapeutic for everyone. The kitchen staff loves it. Paloma will let them know what produce is ready and they clearly enjoy and show pride in their harvesting efforts. “They’ll arrange it beautifully in a big bowl and ask me to take a photo for Facebook,” Nicole laughs. “I think they like to get out of their little niche in the kitchen and go out into nature for a bit.” Even the bartenders make the occasional run for mint for muddling in their mojitos.

The most important feedback has been from patrons. Nightly specials are based on what’s ready for harvest and those that feature produce from the urban garden always are the first to sell out. “We’ve received a huge response,” Nicole tells me, “and yes, it’s wonderful that it sells more than our other menu items, but the compliments on the taste are really what we’re looking for and what we’ve received.” The garden-fresh taste has customers coming back on a regular basis, inquiring as to what has been picked that day and how it will be served that night. Nicole also comments that the garden experience has made her realize the difference between locally grown vegetables and other produce. “It looks like a tomato and it might even be beautiful,” she says of some store bought items, “but it doesn’t even taste like a tomato anymore!” Who needs GMOs, anyway? The inaugural zucchini grown at Yanni’s was up to two feet long because of Paloma’s persistence and patience (and learning a few tricks for battling the omnipresent squash bugs). Presently, 100 percent of the herbs used at the restaurant are grown in the garden, which, especially for basil (a heavily used herb), is an amazing feat.

Nicole and Paloma are making plans for a winter garden (which Gretchen will join upon her return) and reflecting on what worked well and what to change for next year. Paloma has plans this winter to bike down to Mexico and work with farmers there as part of her thesis but will return in January to finish up her final semester at UNM and continue her work at Yanni’s. “We do have room to expand—we could put at least two more beds back there,” Nicole says, “but we’d never be able to sustain, even for a day, how much produce we need in this restaurant.” Beyond productivity, though, the message of the garden is significant; the added awareness for their customers, knowing where their food is coming from, as well as the extra layer of accountability Yanni’s is willing to take on to set the restaurant experience apart.

Yanni’s is located at 3109 Central Avenue Northeast in Albuquerque. 505.268.9250. yannisandlemoni.com.

Story by Emily Beenen

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