In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Sara Gasbarra.
Gazing out the window at her academic office job, Sara Gasbarra found herself jealous of the landscapers who were planting flowers along the sidewalk, and knew she had to make a career change. Without a plan, she quit and wracked her brain for what to do next. “I made a list of all the things I felt passionate about, hoping this would steer me in the right direction,” she remembers. “Food, gardening, restaurants, and sustainability were at the very top.”
Volunteering at Chicago’s top farmers market allowed Gasbarra to touch on all these interests — and led to her launching her culinary garden design business, Verdura, in 2011. She began by partnering with Sandra Holl, a pastry chef who had been a vendor at the market. Holl was about to open Floriole Cafe & Bakery at the time, and asked to grow edible flowers and aromatics for her renowned desserts.
Though Gasbarra never studied agriculture or landscape design (she went to college for art), she grew up in a family of avid gardeners and skilled home cooks. “I spent every summer with my Italian father tending to our backyard garden and watching him transform our ruby red tomatoes into the most delicious of sauces in our kitchen,” she recalls. “Learning from him in this informal setting made me an intuitive gardener.”
This natural green thumb led Gasbarra to success in Chicago, and she was able to pick up new restaurant clients like Bastion, the Catbird Seat, and Locust when she moved to Nashville in 2019. When the hospitality industry shut down during the pandemic, she pivoted to building residential culinary gardens for chefs like Julia Sullivan of Henrietta Red. Here, Gasbarra shares the details of how she created her dream job.
What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
I spend most of my days outside, surrounded by greenery, vegetables, and flowers. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day. Even when it’s dreary and cold in the spring and I’m hauling loads of compost in the rain, it still feels pretty magical. I have 15 gardens at the moment, and I spend my weeks rotating between them. The morning garden is so different from the late afternoon garden, and I always take a moment to appreciate the time of day, the light, the sounds, and the colors during every visit.
What would surprise people about your job?
It really is hard and laborious work! And it’s not always beautiful. We live in an Instagram world where we are presented with images of perfection, beauty, and simplicity — and gardening is much more than this. Gardens are beautiful, but they can also be ugly, complex, overgrown, and chaotic. The act of gardening involves harvesting beautiful vegetables and flowers, but also hard labor that isn’t always pleasant or pretty. I try to encourage people to embrace their garden when it is thriving and beautiful, but also when it is in decline, as there is immense beauty in this stage, too.
And the educational aspect of gardening never really ends! I am constantly learning and perfecting this craft and striving to be a better gardener. Each year, my projects present me with new challenges and successes. The gardener I was back in 2011 is certainly not the same gardener I am in 2023, and I think this translates to any profession in the culinary world. You learn so much by doing and it takes years.
How did you get into the culinary garden industry?
I had shopped at Green City Market, Chicago’s premiere farmers market, for a few years and knew that they had a volunteer program, so I began volunteering there in 2009. I worked every single market shift, every market day, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. I was so drawn to the community of farmers, chefs, and shoppers at Green City Market — it was a very special place where I was surrounded by like-minded people who felt the same excitement for seasonality and sustainability that I did.
The market also runs a 5,000-square-foot educational garden and I eventually started working there, running programming, leading field trips, and planning the garden — focusing on more unusual and heirloom varieties of vegetables. Around this time, Instagram had just launched and I began posting images of everything I was growing in the garden, while also following many of the chefs I had met through the farmers market. Chefs and restaurateurs soon began to reach out to me, after seeing endless posts of strange but beautiful looking tomatoes, inquiring if I could help them set up gardens on-site at their restaurants and that is how Verdura took root.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
My understanding of cooking was strong, but pretty conventional when I first started the business. For example, I used herbs in my own kitchen in the most straightforward way: I only used the leaves. I had no idea that the flowers provided such concentrated flavor and were also used as a way to add color and beauty to whatever it was I was making.
I recall growing cucumbers for a chef and having moments of intense anxiety because for months the vines weren’t producing fruit. I then found out the kitchen was only harvesting the yellow blooms from the plants. These tiny, fuzzy, petite flowers had such wonderful cucumber flavor. My mind was blown. Twelve years later, I am so grateful for all of the things I’ve learned from the talented chefs I’ve had the pleasure of working with. My home garden reflects this, as does my cooking.
How did the pandemic affect your career?
I temporarily lost all of my restaurant projects during the pandemic, when everything shut down. It was a pretty terrifying moment of uncertainty for me, as it was for all of the restaurants I was working with. However, the pandemic opened up a new opportunity for me here in Nashville. People were stuck at home, desperately looking for an engaging activity they could do outside with the family, so I had people reaching out to me about designing and building residential culinary gardens.
It was a quite unexpected pivot, but one that made total sense at the time and has now led me to a successful new branch of my business, building gardens for private residences. Many of the families I work with now love the idea of creating a garden from a chef’s perspective.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Prepare to spend years educating yourself on the job — there is only so much you can learn in books and traditional classrooms. The best “classroom” is the garden and this is a lifelong program. Be prepared for failure and really embrace it when it happens. Failure is such a good thing, especially in gardening. Follow chefs who have gardens on social media and watch how they utilize what they are growing. Keep a home garden, even if it’s small, and use it to experiment. Play around in your own kitchen. Understanding how to use the ingredients you are growing is just as important as the act of growing them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.