Raise the Roof: John Mooney’s Experiment in Aeroponics

Chef John 1
In a city where sourcing virtuous vegetables can feel like a competitive sport, John Mooney is setting his sights high—literally. More than 60 percent of the produce on the menu at his West Village restaurant, Bell, Book & Candle, is grown in soil-free aeroponics towers on the building’s rooftop.

Mooney, the New American restaurant’s chef and co-owner, became interested in state-of-the-art agriculture while overseeing a 22-acre farm in Florida, where subpar soil prompted him to research alternative systems for growing food. Lo, he discovered aeroponics, which he describes as “vertical hydroponics”—futuristic-looking towers enclose and protect the plants’ roots, which are nourished by nutrient-enriched water. Today the roof of Bell, Book & Candle boasts 60 sleek, space-age towers that look quite at home against the city skyline. Far more productive than traditional soil setups, each space-saving tower supports two to three dozen plants.

Over the year, Mooney and crew grow 70 types of fruits and vegetables up there, including three varieties of eggplant, five types of chile peppers, over a dozen different heirloom tomatoes and almost “every herb imaginable.” The melon lineup alone features honeydew, sugar baby watermelons, yellow watermelons and cantaloupe. The entire setup is ultra-eco, right down to the gravity-fed irrigation system, beneficial bugs in place of pesticides and a hand-cranked pulley that transports the harvest from the rooftop to the kitchen six floors down.

But for all the obsessing and effort, the food at Bell, Book & Candle isn’t served with a sermon on the side. “I wanted to create an interesting dining experience,” says Mooney, “but we don’t push our philosophies on our guests.”

Still, he believes the “rooftop-to-tabletop” concept has the potential to transform the food world. In the meantime it’s a way for fresh-obsessed chefs like Mooney to exercise precise control over the quality of their ingredients. “We pick the food when it’s perfectly ripe,” he says. “Our tomatoes never see the inside of a refrigerator.” Or even a farmer’s truck.

Vertical integration: At Bell, Book & Candle, Chef John Mooney’s space-age garden features soil-free, space-saving towers that can support up to three dozen plants apiece.  Photo credit: Bell, Book & Candle

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