Sunil Patel identifies first as a farmer and second as a chef. He’s the founder of Patchwork Urban Farms, a multiplot urban farm project in Asheville and the co-owner of Sovereign Remedies, a farm-to-bar cocktail joint, where he creates monthly Indian Supper events that showcase the fruits (and vegetables) of his labor.
Mountain Xpress: How did you get into farming?
Sunil Patel: I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa. I studied anthropology in school. I was planning to go to grad school for that and decided to take a year off after college and live in Japan because I thought that was one of the cultures I’d be studying. I ended up staying there three years. I was living in a small village, and farming was all around me. I was teaching English but would help friends here and there. Eating food was such a huge deal in my family, so when I saw all this firsthand, I was like, “Wow, there’s this whole side of things I know nothing about” — suburban naiveté. When I moved back to Pennsylvania, I thought I would apprentice on a farm and then focus on something more like the culture of food. After that apprenticeship, I was still not convinced about the anthropology thing. There was still so much more I wanted to learn about farming. I ended up managing a large CSA [community-supported agriculture business] in central Pennsylvania for the about four years, and during that time it grew from a quarter-acre plot to a 12-acre working farm. I also studied natural farming methods and worked for farmers in California, West Virginia, New Jersey and Oregon.
Do you have any formal culinary training?
No. I am first-generation [American]. My parents are from India, and I grew up eating a very complete vegetarian diet. We always cooked at home. My mom would always get me and my sister to chop up the veggies — it takes so long to cook Indian food. Everything is fresh. There are so many components to a complete meal.
When did you start doing the Indian Suppers at Sovereign Remedies? How are they going?
Pretty much when the restaurant opened — about 3 1/2 years ago. The Indian Suppers are usually every first Tuesday of the month. It’s been going really well. Most times we sell out. It’s $27 per person, and that includes tips. It’s a really good deal for all the food. The menu changes each month, and it’s served family-style. Dinners are limited to about 20 people, and what’s being harvested at the farm drives the menu. It’s usually in the moment that I decide what style I want to do the dishes in. For example, north Indian is really creamy, the typical Indian food you’ll find in the states – very rich. South Indian is superspicy and pungent — more oily as opposed to creamy.
Tell me about Patchwork Urban Farms.
I launched Patchwork Urban Farms in 2014. Right now, we have 14 different spots all around town. We have a few in North Asheville, Montford, a bunch in West Asheville and one on the Southside. For all intents and purposes, it’s one single farm, and we make exchange agreements with the landowners. We trade them produce for acres to the land. It’s kind of like a lease agreement. We do a CSA program and sell produce at the [Asheville] City Market, sell ingredients to Sovereign Remedies for the regular menu and do a pop-up produce stand at Asheville Community Yoga. We also have an online farm stand program where people can just order as they want rather than do the CSA. I think we have 80 CSA members right now. It started out as just me, but we have two other farmers now. Right now, we’re harvesting tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash, beets, scallions, onions, corn and potatoes. We grow year-round. It’s about creating food in the best places possible for that food and then sharing it.
What’s one of your favorite Indian dishes?
Kicharee. It’s basically the Indian version of beans and rice. It can be as simple or as complex as you like. It’s like a comforting porridge.
Good question! I’m working on designing the farm so it can include many more farms and people. I think we’re developing something that can be used as a model in other cities, too. If it does work the way we’re envisioning it to work, it can be replicated. There’s still a long way to go, but I see my future to include more cooking. My initial dream was to have a farm and then put a restaurant on it. It’s evolved into a very similar dream with the opening of Sovereign Remedies. While the restaurant is not on a farm, it’s the same, but different. Charlie Hodge, my partner at Sovereign Remedies, has made an amazing space, and our new chef, Graham House, has taken the menu to the next level. We’re doing more small plates now. As long as the future involves eating, cooking and farming, I’ll be happy.