MIT Raises the Roof with Two New Initiatives

Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, boasts sweeping vistas of the Charles River and Boston’s impressive skyline. It also now boasts something else: a rooftop farm. Director of Culinary Operations Brian Dagnall calls the farm “the epitome of Bon Appétit’s philosophy of locally sourced ingredients that create food alive with flavor.”

McCormick Hall Lead Cook Andy Allen preps freshly cut herbs for service

To make the farm a reality, Brian tapped longtime Bon Appétit Farm to Fork farmer-partner Matt Couzens of Horse Listeners Orchard in Ashford, CT. Matt planted 80 boxes on the rooftop of McCormick Hall, a 10-story residential building located along the Charles on MIT’s urban campus. Working together, Matt, Brian, and McCormick Chef/Manager Chip Coller installed an automatic watering system to keep the two types of basil, six varieties of peppers, three varieties of mint, rosemary, regular and lemon thyme, chives, scallions, bay, lemon balm, heirloom tomatoes, and cilantro well hydrated. The longest distance these fresh ingredients travel is from the roof down the elevator to the kitchen.

“How cool is it that I can head up to the roof to ‘harvest’ fresh herbs with a pair of shears, clean and mince them, and put them right into stir fries?” McCormick Lead Cook Andy Allen said. Andy also uses them to marinate lamb, season roasted potatoes, flavor vinaigrettes, make pesto, add a taste of freshness to aguas frescas, and as a key ingredient in a sweet-and-sour chicken dish. To promote the hyper-local nature of their newest offerings, Catering Director Patrick Fitzgibbons adds descriptors noting the produce’s rooftop provenance on the catering menus.

The MIT team has long made efforts to show guests where their food comes from. In fact, in a second new initiative, the Bon Appétiters are working closely with researchers, members of MIT’s Office of Sustainability, and the Open Agriculture Initiative (OpenAg) on an exciting new MIT Media Lab initiative that applies MIT’s innovative approach to the future of food.

Freshly grown herbs bring this sweet-and-sour chicken dish alive with flavor

The team’s collaboration with the OpenAg initiative will provide Bon Appétit cafés with fresh basil and a spring mix of lettuce grown year-round in environmentally controlled freight containers, thereby furthering the OpenAg’s mission to create healthier, more engaging, and more inventive future food systems. “We believe the precursor to a healthier and more sustainable food system will be the creation of an open-source ecosystem of food technologies that enable and promote transparency, networked experimentation, education, and hyper-local production,” says OpenAg Director Caleb Harper.

Submitted by Larry Simpson, Project Manager