Local Talent: Chef Michael Lina Of Union Kitchen
Better tasting food, grown sustainably, at a lower cost. That’s a triple crown many chefs aspire to achieve. The question is: how can a chef consistently ensure such outcomes? For Executive Chef Michael Lina of Union Kitchen and Bar in Encinitas, it’s about fresh herbs and vegetables, specifically VEG.
VEG is a gardening membership in North County that creates organic hydroponic gardens for both commercial and residential properties. About a year ago, Union Kitchen partnered with VEG to set up a hydroponic garden on its property. Lina says it’s one of the smartest business decisions he has made in his tenure there.
“Since we set up the garden, people walking by stop and look and ask questions. It’s become a site to see in the area,” says Lina. He adds, “we’re up 20% in sales from last year” and credits this success in part to converting those intrigued passersby into eager diners.
What makes hydroponic gardening a smart investment? Most hydroponic gardens use circulated water, which means less water waste and less water usage overall, critical in drought-prone San Diego. Hydroponic plants also grow faster than traditional soil-based plants because they have direct access to nutrients that boost growth without wasting energy.
This could explain Lina’s abundance of herbs last summer, like basil: “It saves me a lot of money. After you pay for the setup [of the garden] it costs basically nothing. And I’m getting 9 to 10 pounds of basil at a time. It’s a lot cheaper than buying it.”
Economic and environmental benefits aside, these organic hydroponic plants are exceedingly flavorful and nutritious. Lina’s basil and spinach pesto, for example, has found a home in his fresh poke bowl as well as his house-made flatbread with roasted tomatoes, smoked chicken, bacon, and cheese curds. “You can’t get fresher or better tasting food than when you cut the plants and walk a few feet into the kitchen to make the dish,” he explains.
Lina admits that the small scale of Union Kitchen’s hydroponic garden cannot fully supply the restaurant’s needs. But even using the plants for individual seasonal dishes and private dinners have had bona fide positive impacts.
Inspired by his foray into hydroponic gardening, Lina says he and Daniel England, corporate chef of OMG Restaurant Group, LCC, which includes Union Kitchen, have plans to begin growing their own organic microgreens and microherbs. “We don’t use [organic] as a catch phrase. We really mean it here,” says Lina. “Our chicken is organic. Our meats are all free-range, grass-fed. Our produce is almost exclusively sourced locally. And I’m proud to say it.”
Union Kitchen & Bar
1108 S Coast Hwy 101 Encinitas, CA 92024