"I didn't grow up gardening—I grew up in the West Village," Anastasia Cole Plakias reveals nonchalantly as she gazes with excitement upon the brightly colored rows of plants growing in the MUNCHIES Garden.
It's a startling revelation for someone who not only makes a living cultivating plants, but who is undoubtedly at the forefront of NYC's rooftop farming scene. I'm still trying to contemplate the improbability of her background when Cole Plakias loudly exclaims, "Zlata radish—whoa! They're getting so big—we better pull them. I'll pickle them later today. I love the cool color on them."
Cole Plakias is the vice president and founding partner of what is the city's largest and most sought-after rooftop gardening company, Brooklyn Grange. They also just so happen to be the brilliant folks behind our very own rooftop garden; Cole Plakias says that her partner, Gwen Schantz, designed the majority of it.
Last month, Cole Plakias was making the rounds to promote her new book, The Farm on the Roof: What Brooklyn Grange Taught Us About Entrepreneurship, Community, and Growing a Sustainable Business, and stopped by our office to sample the fruits of her company's continual labor.
As we weave our way through the garden and harvest the radishes, mustard leaves, green garlic, and herbs that Cole Plakias would be using to create some truly inspired and sublimely simple salad wraps, she explains how she ended up devoting her life to the pursuit of rooftop soil farming.
"I worked for Mario Batali's business partner, Joe Bastianich, for many years. Then I started following around the guys who opened Roberta's, who are buds of mine. I thought I'd write an article about the new Brooklyn food scene, which—this was 2008, 2009—was new at the time. They were such punk kids and they started talking about building gardens—and I had all these questions. It had never occurred to me that you could just do something like that, you know? But they were just going for it."
After helping to build the gardens at Roberta's, Cole Plakias met Ben Flanner from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Flanner, who co-founded that project, and Cole Plakias realized that to make urban agriculture work, it was best to scale up. Combining forces, they "set out to find a large enough space and in New York City that was on a roof, because there's no ground-level space. And that was the beginning of Brooklyn Grange. It's been quite the journey after that."
Flanner is now "head farmer" and CEO of Brooklyn Grange, which grows over 50,000 pounds of organically-cultivated produce per year, supplying restaurants, farm stands, retailers, and individuals through their CSA program—and they consult on gardens like ours.
Having picked all that she needs, Cole Plakias heads into the MUNCHIES Kitchen and begins to assemble the salad roll-ups, a dish she came up with after running into some party-planning trouble.
"We decided to have a party and there was just no way we could give everyone a plate and a fork," she explains. "But a Brooklyn Grange party without a Brooklyn Grange salad just seemed wrong. So I came up with the recipe for what I call salad roll-ups, where I take a mustard leaf and put down some yogurt and roll it up and tie it with chives."
Cole Plakias says the wrap was partially inspired by Greenpoint's Glasserie and partially by "my laziness and unwillingness to do dishes." As she finishes tying the wraps with some freshly cut chives, Cole Plakias tells us, "I like it as a dish that's representative of what farming is all about, which is community. One of the best things about community is eating with your hands, passing each other food."
RECIPE: The Pollinator Pathway
Always one to go above and beyond, Cole Plakias then decides to draw on her time as a bartender at Batali's Lupa and whips up an impromptu cocktail she calls the Pollinator Pathway. The drink is the bona fide encapsulation of springtime and is as close to the love child of chamomile tea and a gin cocktail as you're going to get.
Cole Plakias finishes by saying, "When you're a city kid you have, just downstairs at the place on the corner, three kinds of tofu and all kinds of radishes. When things are so widely available you don't really think about where they come from." But she knows precisely where her love of urban farming—and food—comes from: "What set me up to love farming was when I was growing up in the West Village; we had this really tiny, tiny galley kitchen. But every day my mom—I was very fortunate—would take the time to shop and cook with us."
Not bad for a kid who grew up nowhere near a farm.