FRUITLAND — When chef Jim Hughes tells patrons at his Restaurant 213 that the vegetables and fruits on his menu are fresh, he really does mean fresh.
Just outside his restaurant door is his garden, a 10- by 100-foot strip of fruits and vegetables grown in a raised bed next to asphalt and concrete.
“I had a lot of time on my hands during the day and about four years ago my friend, Dr. Ken Bortnick of Salisbury Optical, suggested I plant a garden. I think Ken is a professional gardener who specializes in organic vegetables and he got me going,” Hughes said. “Then as the years went by, my little garden kept getting bigger until now it runs the length of the restaurant. It really is from my garden to your table.”
Hughes plants and weeds his organic garden, which relies on drip irrigation in the hot, dry weather.
A specialty for the chef is growing heirloom crops, especially 16 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
“I have black Russian, red, chocolate strip, yellows and such, as well as straight and crook neck yellow squash, buttercup and butternut squash, traditional purple eggplant, a white eggplant, four varieties of Japanese eggplant and a Middle Eastern eggplant and sweet red peppers,” he said. “I also have colored peppers — green, yellow, black and orange and jalapeno, red chili peppers and cucumbers among the almost 8-foot-tall caged tomatoes.”
As for his plump cantaloupes and watermelons, the chef uses them for something different than the traditional slice-and-serve dessert.
“I use cantaloupes and watermelons in my ‘sipping’ soup. It’s made with champagne and chilled,” Hughes said. “Delicious.”
Yellow squash is also served as a soup with cumin and curry.
“I also do a red pepper soup served on Sunday and Thursday,” he said. “I make a red pepper flan, which is roasted red pepper that’s pureed, with heavy cream and eggs and then baked like a pudding and served. We even have a roasted garlic flan.”
There are other unique menu items that have their basis in his garden.
“We sauté cucumbers, take a few cucumbers, skin them, remove the seeds, slice them, sauté in a little bit of butter and fresh dill with a touch of cream, fantastic, a great vegetable,” he said.
Something from his garden is used every day in the business.
“I rely on the garden. It was expensive to get up and going, but you can’t beat the freshness, it really is from my garden to your table in minutes of being picked,” Hughes said. “On a Saturday night, when we are really busy, I go out to the garden a couple of times and bring a couple of things in, and it can’t get any fresher than that. I don’t buy anything except more greens for the salad.”
Among the mature vegetables are patches of herbs — sage, Italian and Greek oregano, thyme, purple and red basil, licorice basil, lemon basil, chives, sorrel, mint and spearmint.
Remarkably, Hughes said, he has yet to lose a single watermelon or tomato.
“I can’t believe it either, because there is a bar next to us and cars park close by, but nobody’s touched anything,” he said.
The chef said he is delighted with the ability to have instant-fresh vegetables and fruits to work with in his kitchen and on his menu.
Hughes, who has operated Restaurant 213 for the past eight years, knows his way around the kitchen and his worldwide experience in cooking has enhanced his used of fresh-from-the-garden vegetables, fruits and herbs.
For five years, while in Saudi Arabia, he served as chef for the royal family and King Khallad Military Academy, the West Point of Saudi Arabia, he said.
Once the youngest executive chef in the nation, Hughes worked at the West Chester Country Club in New York. He was also corporate chef for Marriott International for four years and opened the kitchen of the Marriott Marquis in New York City, which has 3,000 rooms.
Hughes worked to start the culinary program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; he also designed the six kitchens there.
“I was at UMES for almost 10 years,” he said.
He is proud to be a gardener and chef of a world-class restaurant.
“We are one of the 220 restaurants on the Distinguished Restaurants of North America list,” he said. “I was selected as a James Beard Foundation Honoree in 2009, that’s huge, they do a world search and pick 10 chefs.”
In 1990, Hughes won a gold medal in the U.S Culinary Olympics. Yet chefs know they have “arrived” when they cook for U.S. presidents and heads of state.
“We catered for 18 times to President Ronald Reagan for events that had more than 200 people,” Hughes said. “I also catered one of the inaugural parties for President George Walker Bush.” Not to mention cooking for celebrities Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
“All in all, I think I have a pretty strong background in world class cooking,” he said, smiling, “and I’m out there every day working in the garden.”