Clockwise from top left: Planters adorn the local garden at Little Rock’s Ciao Baci, while chef Jeff Owen uses fresh fruits and veggies like house-grown eggplant and cantaloupe to plan his seasonal menus. The garden started as a beautification project, but has grown into a vital food supply for Ciao Baci.

 

LOCAVORE’S DELIGHT

Jeff Owen and Ciao Baci are homegrown favorites

By: Megan Blankenship   Photography: Brian Chilson

If you’ve been to Ciao Baci lately, chances are at least part of what you ate or drank was grown right on the premises in the small (but vibrant) on-site garden chef Jeff Owen and his team have cultivated for the past two years behind the Mediterranean-inspired fixture of Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood. If you walk around the building, you’ll see two beds bordering a parking area in the back, a planter of herbs decorating a ledge of the cooler, and scattered individual containers that Owen swears “just seem to keep popping up.” These are what, largely, supply each evening’s fare. 

Owen and his wife have been gardening at home for the better part of a decade, and the natural progression was to incorporate it into what they do at Ciao Baci. The venture “started just as a way to make our parking lot a little greener,” says Jeff. “We’ve got neighbors, people all around us. We don’t want them to look at just a bunch of dumpsters, a bunch of concrete.” What started as a beautification project soon became an honest-to-goodness urban farm, with produce showing up more and more often on the seasonal menu. Late summer crops have informed dishes like the wedge salad, which features house-grown cherry tomatoes. In addition, Jeff tells us that “all the okra we’re getting goes into a chicken sausage gumbo on this menu.” 

This year saw squash, radishes, green beans and a healthy crop of romaine, but all you’ll find out back right now are a few Anaheim and cayenne peppers alongside a last bastion of eggplants as the Ciao Baci team transitions to fall crops. Soon the garden will bloom again with hearty collard, mustard and turnip greens and root vegetables.

Jeff’s governing culinary principles are seasonality and creativity, and having a garden on the premises has allowed him to reach new heights in both. What he grows onsite he supplements with “kind of whatever people bring to us,” meaning on any given day he might be serving lettuces and herbs from Arkansas Natural Produce near Malvern, veggies from other local favorites like Tanner Farm and Dunbar Garden—or whatever looked pretty at the farmers market that morning. This sense of adaptation and dedication is what the Ciao Baci garden is all about: to the city, to the seasons—and to a new kind of cooking that’s as local as it gets.