Early Girl Farm in Center Moriches Finds a Following, Arugula Included

farmer Patty Gentry with a basket in her farm

“Do you have any chervil?” “Can I get some zucchini blossoms?” “Do you have any arugula?” Home cooks and working chefs come here because they know they’ll get an answer they like and that they’ll get it from Patty Gentry, the titular girl.

“I don’t have chervil, but let me get you some holy basil. It’s delicious,” she says.

“I have people call ahead for zucchini blossoms,” she says, “so I can pick them in the morning. If I pick them later, sometimes the blossoms will close around bees, and you’ll be driving home and hear something buzzing in your car.” And of course she has arugula. “I swear everyone wants arugula,” she says later. “And I don’t want to run out anymore.” It’s been like that since she started her farm in April of 2010.

She’s been learning as she goes along. Learning what is hard: melons; what is a mistake: too much compost; and what you can’t run out of: arugula.

Truth be told, the arugula is delicious—bright, tender and spicy—much like Gentry herself, an attractive combination that feeds the stomach and the soul.

The soil on Gentry’s hands and the farming tools in them have only recently replaced a chef’s knife and hands covered in the stuff of food preparation. This graduate of Westhampton High School and Johnson & Wales, where she completed an associate’s degree in culinary arts, spent an earlier life in the kitchens of local and New York City restaurants working her way from line cook to chef.

She loved it. She worked at Arcadia and Lobster Club in Manhattan with Anne Rosenzweig, in the kitchen at the Ross School in East Hampton (where she first met many of the local farmers that she would eventually call friends and mentors), and was a partner in the Hampton Chutney Company’s opening of their New York City outpost.

But the desire to grow something, to be on the other end, to be the person responsible for cultivating, picking out and packing the produce she was used to signing for and using to stock her pantry was too strong; she wanted to bring the bounty to fellow chefs, who now account for most of her sales.

“I have so much respect for them and how hard they work,” she says. “And I know they don’t have the time to go to a farmers market, and it is hard to have that kind of thing delivered. But I was a cook for so long, so I know what they’re looking for, and I try to be as accurate as possible, so there’s no surprise for them. I can give them consistent quality. I want them to know when they receive something from me it’s going to be perfect.”

“They’re very patient with me,” she says, with trademark self- deprecation, playfulness and appreciation, “because I’m new.”
And fair. Gentry will adjust her prices down if she feels the product isn’t at its peak. She tells the chefs when, say, holy basil is a better deal than chervil.

And they’ve been more than patient. Chef Eric Lomando, at Kitchen A Bistro in St. James, tells her he just wants fresh food, and not to worry about consistency.

Chef Christian Mir of Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue has been one of Gentry’s biggest customers, taking what’s fresh right now and working that into his menu. Lately he’s been incorporating her little artichokes and cardoon, a leafy Italian green, whose stalks are used like celery. He puts them on the plate with his rack of lamb.

“She is very dedicated,” he says. “And she surprises me all the time. She loves what she does and it shows in the produce.”

“Without him, I’d be taking drink orders down at the bowling alley,” says Gentry. “He loves it when I say that.”

Currently, Gentry is farming three acres, two on Woodlawn Avenue in East Moriches, which she rents from Sue Drake, and one acre on Bay Avenue on the water in the same town. Drake owns more land around Gentry’s plot, where she grows herbs and raises pigs and chickens, making a trip to the farm all the more “a trip to a farm.” Each has her own farm stand.

The acre on the water is owned by Gentry’s stepfather and once housed a duck farm. Getting that soil ready for planting was a challenge, says Gentry. “We dug up doll’s heads and pajamas. There was so much crap in it, but you should see the soil now, it’s beautiful. I think the melons are going to make it this year.”

Here’s where Gentry goes into the types of melons she’s growing, the outcome of spending the winter drinking wine and looking at seed catalogs. She favors Baker Creek Heirloom seeds above others.

“I’m growing Prescott Fond Blanc, which I read about in Amy Goldman’s book of melons. It looks like bread dough but when it’s ripe the flesh is salmon- colored and the seed catalogs say it tastes like cake,” she says. It’s a French melon that’s been documented as far back as the 1850s.
Chef Mir is waiting for the Charantais melons. “He says he cuts them in half and pours chilled port wine into the cavity,” she says. “I’m so excited.”

It’s hard not to get excited yourself when following Gentry around the farm. She pours some seeds for Dove Breast beans, with their mottled gray and beige coloring, onto her hand and asks, “Aren’t they beautiful?”

They are. (Turns out they didn’t germinate that well, so they ended up part compost and part food for the pigs.)

Gentry wanders off from the pig pen directly across from the deer fence surrounding the planting beds. The fence has been used to support climbing flat beans. “You can give one to the pigs,” she says. “Pick off the biggest one you can find.”