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How Houston Chefs Collaborate With Refugee Farmers to Produce Some of the City’s Best Dishes

Plant It Forward Farms connects the city’s finest restaurants with upstart farmers

Farmer Constant Ngouala at Plant it Forward
| Cat Modlin-Jackson

Once the bright greens wilt into dark tendrils, Chef Adam Dorris of Presidio Restaurant will braise the coils of baby bok choy in the juice of a cut of beef chuck from a nearby cattle ranch. But for now, the leaves and stems sizzle on a flat top cooker, waiting to take their place on a new special that features sweet potatoes and pureed sunchokes.

For years, the chef has served greens grown by the founding farmers of Plant It Forward Farms, one of the first farms in the Houston city limits and the city’s only refugee-run farm. Presidio’s menu reflects Dorris’s desire to keep dishes local and seasonal. “The way that I’ve always done my menus is, I just kind of play jazz,” Dorris says. “Whatever’s available — that’s what we’re going to use.”

Fifteen miles southwest of Presidio, a small field sits on the corner of a well-traveled intersection. Drivers might miss the beds of lettuce and carrots and Brussels sprouts growing under the power lines, but most passersby would notice the bursting banana leaves and stately sugar cane stalks that separate the Plant It Forward Farm on Fondren Road from an otherwise unremarkable stretch of land.

On a Friday evening, Farmer Constant Ngouala has been preparing his weekly harvest since dawn and will continue well into the night. The sun bounces off bundles of green and purple baby bok choy that he pulls from the ground. Ngouala usually sells a share of his produce to local chefs like Dorris, save for a short time after Hurricane Harvey wiped out most of his crops. But Ngouala is no stranger to adversity. Dealing with Harvey’s aftermath was small potatoes compared the struggle he faced after leaving his native Congo-Brazzaville as a refugee in 1999.

War in the Democratic Republic of Congo drove Ngouala to Gabon, where he started to farm, but a lack of opportunities for non-citizens caused him to seek refuge in the United States. He came without the money, connections and language skills necessary to continue his craft as a farmer. To get by, he worked what jobs he could get while he studied English at a community college.

Constant Ngouala tends his baby bok choy
At Presidio, Chef Adam Dorris uses Ngouala’s bok choy alongside 44 Farms beef

Three years after coming to Texas as a refugee, Ngouala learned that a local philanthropist was starting a program for refugee farmers looking to establish their own business. He seized the opportunity to join the inaugural class of Plant It Forward farmers who received training, resources and a small piece of land to cultivate. Now he is a master farmer with the organization and he conducts business with local chefs like Justin Yu, Chris Shepherd, and Dorris, who opened Presidio with Charles Bishop in 2017 after leaving Pax Americana.

For many of the chefs who work with Plant It Forward, part of the allure is the organization’s mission to empower new Americans. "I know what Plant It Forward does and I think that what their organization has accomplished is pretty amazing,” Dorris says. “From the beginning I personally wanted to support them.”

“We speak several times a week, talk about what’s being harvested that week, what’s going to be going into the ground in the future,” explains Dorris on how he and Ngouala, who’s worked hard to learn English, communicate to bring locally grown produce onto the plates of hungry Houstonians.

Bonds form between these locals chefs and farmers, an attractive angle for socially-conscious chefs who also want to guarantee food as fresh and homegrown as possible. "It’s as close as I can get to supporting another human being who's living off the sweat of their brow,” says Weights + Measures chef Richard Kaplan as he plucks the stems off tatsoi greens he got from Plant It Forward earlier in the week. “I like the connectivity.”

Kaplan has sourced from Plant It Forward for almost a year now to create feature dishes and seasonal specials of the week like a salad of tatsoi and poached pear that he ran in early November. Some chefs see collaboration with Plant It Forward farmers as an artistic endeavor. From a pop-up tent in the Axelrad beer garden, Chef Evelyn Garcia cuts and chars okra grown by a Plant It Forward farmer for one of her signature stir-fries. A stack of cupcakes garnished with curls of Plant It Forward figs sit on a table next to her griddle.

“It’s just awesome to have that communication with the farmers and their community and be able to showcase their work as well as my own,” says the award-winning chef of her motivation to buy from Plant It Forward.

Chef Evelyn Garcia at Axelrad
Cat Modlin-Jackson/EHOU
A stir-fry of okra, greens, and more sizzles on the flat top

Most of the chefs who get greens from Plant It Forward are well acquainted with Daniella Lewis, director of the chef sales program. Lewis works as a liaison between chefs and farmers as a way to reduce language and cultural barriers. “When we paired chefs directly with the farmer it was not easy at all because the farmers don’t speak English as a first language,” said Lewis. “So, I just try to make it easier for everyone.”

When Lewis isn’t talking to chefs or farmers, the Houston native is navigating traffic to deliver boxes of fresh-picked produce to restaurant kitchens across the city. She knows her efforts to ensure the refugee farmers’ success are fruitless unless chefs are committed to getting inventive with the local products. “I think it would be wonderful if a chef has a product that they want every week in the same quantity and that they will reliably purchase week-to-week,” Lewis says. “Local sustainable agriculture is viable and worth the investment.”

Almost one quarter of Ngouala’s income is derived from chef sales, and he credits Plant It Forward for helping him build the connections that have fueled his success. "Plant It [Forward] make me in America...If I don’t come to Plant It [Forward], people don’t know me like people know me today," says Ngouala. His network is so far-reaching that it includes the likes of Anthony Bourdain, who dined on a meal made by Ngouala and other Plant It Forward farmers when the celebrity chef visited Houston for “Parts Unknown” in 2016.

Like Plant It Forward, organizations dedicated dedicated to supporting refugee farmers began as early as the 1980s, when national and state government agencies in Minnesota partnered with a handful of non-profits to help Hmong refugees set up farming businesses and attain self-sufficiency in a new land. But the endeavor was short lived.

Along with selling to chefs, Plant It Forward pops up at farmers markets
Plant It Forward Farms/Facebook
Farmers preparing green beans and spring onions for market
Plant It Forward Farms/Facebook

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that refugee-run farms like Plant It Forward started breaking ground, according to Brianna Bowman with the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project in Lowell, Massachusetts. Established in 1998 to serve Lowell’s large Cambodian diaspora, New Entry was among the first programs for refugee farmers.

The project is one of hundreds of so-called incubator farms, a term used to describe “a land-based multi-grower site that provides technical assistance to aspiring farmers,” explains Bowman. In other words, “It’s an opportunity to start farming, to start a farm business with some of the barriers to entry lowered,” he said.

After finding his footing with Plant It Forward, last year Ngouala purchased an acre of his own land in Houston and within the next few years he will stop growing on the Plant It Forward farm to make room for new farmers. He may be leaving Fondren Road, but the Congolese-American, who became a citizen in 2016, remains committed to helping other Plant It Forward farmers as he continues to sow food for plates across the city. Congo will always be the country where Ngouala grew his roots, but Houston is the home where he grows his chef-coveted greens.

“Now I am a Texan,” he says from under a ball cap bearing the letters “TX.”

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