Fresh strawberries
Photo: Jim Franco
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"My mom made me work in the garden, she taught me how to cook, and she built relationships with neighbors, policemen, firemen—the whole community," Michel Nischan says. "She used food as a metaphor for so many things in life. When I looked at my career, after being a chef for 20 years and cooking for other people till midnight, it hit me that I hadn't done anything for my children—other than love them and provide for them—that would influence their lives the way my mom did mine. I saw the garden as a chance to be involved with them, to deal with successes and failures, and then to come together in the kitchen to prepare the food."

As you might expect, watermelon, arugula, and toasted-almond salad tastes better when you've had a hand in producing the watermelon and arugula. Similarly, basil chicken with grilled kale and heirloom tomatoes gives an extra kick when it's made with genuine family heirlooms. The surreal part is that the Nischans' five kids actually buy into all this. Although pruning 11 kinds of lettuce isn't their 19-year-old daughter's idea of fun, and their 15-year-old son would rather skateboard than mound radishes, Nischan's fear that his children would see the garden as a "green hell" seems unfounded.

On a recent afternoon while getting his hands dirty near some lettuce, Nischan encountered a creeping invader. "If this caterpillar were a problem with my cell phone, I'd probably be cussing under my breath right now," he said. "But when I run into imperfections here, I open my mind and ask, "What strategy can I use to get the brun d'hiver lettuce to work out?" With a cell, you're dealing with someone else's design and technology. When you spend hours turning soil, let it sit over the winter, rework it, plant the seeds, and watch the seeds grow, it sets you up for a whole different way of thinking." Nothing like a bug to bring a person back down to earth.

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