In the service drive of The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, before the freight lift and entrance to the labyrinthian storage area under the ballrooms, sits a 40-foot by 8-foot shiny white box. It's a normal-sized shipping container, a tad larger than an average Airstream, that doesn’t seem altogether out of place. Step inside, taking note of the “Co2 Emissions in Progress” sign, and the chilly, glowing, multi-tiered lab dubbed the "Grow House" is not what you would have expected.
The resort’s culinary team, led by Executive Chef George Fistrovich, is rewriting the definition of “fresh direct” minus the grocery store, distributor, farmland and even the farmer. By using NASA-like hydroponic growing (that is, water only, with no soil or pesticides, which actually uses 90 percent less water in the process) and monitoring every aspect of the environment with the swish of a fingertip on a smartphone, Fistrovich and his team are raising the equivalent of an acre of produce, harvested on the spot and brought directly to the resort’s kitchens.
Their first experiments have been with Bibb and romaine lettuces. At the rate they’re going, the Grow House can yield 25,000 heads of lettuce a year—a little less than half of the hotel’s total consumption (yes, that includes all seven restaurants and banquet halls).
The Ritz in Naples is the first resort in the nation to do this, and with the implications and stakes involved, we envision others following suit. Not only can they provide the freshest ingredients to diners, but they also have the power to change the rules of seasonal dining. Local blueberries are available in Florida only from April to June, but in the Grow House they can flourish in October or January. Imagine what this could also mean for farming as a whole—asparagus in the fall, butternut squash in the spring—the possibilities seem endless as long as there are funds and resources to support them.
As for the near term, the hotel has not yet served its bounty to the general public, but Fistrovich aims to within the month, starting first with Terrazza (the Italian dishes are a natural fit with his early crops). But going forward, there could be Grow House microgreens at The Grill or herbs on the creative sushi at Dusk. Only time—and the results of mad-cool culinary science—will tell.