Shelton says nine out of 10 watermelons aren't worth picking. But Bonny Doon Vineyards harvests at their ripest peak. (Chip Scheuer)

Shelton says nine out of 10 watermelons aren't worth picking. But Bonny Doon Vineyards harvests at their ripest peak. (Chip Scheuer)

Last week, Le Cigare Volant chef Ryan Shelton drew from the restaurant’s bio-dynamic gardens in San Juan Bautista to create dish after dazzling dish of seasonal creativity. Dry-farmed green and crimson tomatoes, honeydew melon and shell beans converged in Shelton’s sparkling salad course. Grilled corn and squashes adorned a platter piled high with roasted suckling pig. And into vast platters of paella, perfumed by smoked paprika and local shellfish, came more of the fresh herbs and vegetables from the chef’s in-house garden. Even the palate-refreshing intermezzo contained the garden’s yellow flame peaches and basil, saturated with the winemaker’s sparkling moscato.

Shelton was already a veteran of the restaurant garden experience by the time he arrived at Le Cigare Volant early this year. His time at Mountain View’s Chez TJ gave him access to the restaurant’s “back yard” garden.

“It was great to be able to grow lots of specialty items and edible flowers and herbs,” says Shelton.

By the time he arrived at the Bonny Doon Vineyard restaurant on the Westside of Santa Cruz, the vineyard estate had its own garden up and running.

“Having the garden available is great,” Shelton admits. “It is laid out with difficult-to-get items, specialty produce, things that are expensive or tricky to order like cucumber flowers, onion blossoms and those little one-inch baby carrots.”

The other big plus of a proprietary garden is quality control. “Everything can be fresh—everything can be picked at the peak of ripeness.” The produce can go directly from farm to kitchen, without making flavor-eroding stops at distributors, and then to retail shelves. “For example, Seascape strawberries, I love these. They’re perfect,” Shelton gushes. “The little heart-shaped fruit, the bright red color and with intense flavor. But they break down in one or two days, and no distributor will touch them.”

So Shelton has his favorite Seascape strawberries grown in the vineyard garden. Bonny Doon’s vineyard manager Nicole Walsh is responsible for growing the vegetables and other items for Shelton’s menu. And he is grateful for her sensitivity to his requests. We have a good proportion of harvest size, targeted to exactly what I can use.”

Having dedicated harvests gives the chef peak freshness, exactly the items he wants to work with, and “heightened quality.” Shelton gives our local farmers markets high marks for top quality tomatoes, but he’s a believer in the heirloom varieties and their flavor intensity produced on the Popelouchum property (an Ohlone designation for the land that is now home to Bonny Doon Vineyards’ 280-acre estate), thanks to biochar techniques.

“The melons are awesome, especially the watermelon,” he says. “Frankly, nine out of 10 watermelons aren’t worth picking. But ours are harvested at the peak of ripeness.”

Shelton says he tries to highlight garden items in at least one dish from each course on his menu.

“I’m looking forward next to kabocha squash,” he confides. “It needs a perfect moment of ripeness in order to avoid over-starchiness. The farm is fertilized by biochar which encourages intense concentration of micro-flora. The results—biodynamic, dry-farmed, certified organic—have great depth of flavor,” he believes.

Santa Cruz diners look for quality and creativity, Shelton contends. “They like the craft.” Access to his own garden, one he directs and designs as the seasons change, lets the chef “keep everything developing” on his menu, which now includes a perfected gluten-free flatbread pizza. The garden’s harvests lend his dishes an extra vitality, a “departure from the everyday.”