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The Accidental Chef

Leslie Thomas does not just have a green thumb. It’s more like a green arm. Her backyard is overflowing with kale, cabbage, peppers, cucumbers, artichokes, strawberries, eggplants, tomatoes, ghost peppers, and 35 different grape vines — just to name a few.

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the amount of food she grows is where she grows it. She does not have a ranch or even an expansive backyard. All of her edible plants occupy about 1,000 square feet, roughly the size of half of a tennis court.

Until 2007, Leslie’s yard contained mainly ornamental plants, and she didn’t spend much time gardening. Then she found out she had hyperthyroidism, and her nutritionist recommended that she start eating more plants from the Brassica family, such as kale and cabbage. At the same time, she met an edible gardener who encouraged her to grow her own food instead of buying it at the store. The two of them got to work, and before long, Leslie was growing cabbage and kale. She decided to add “just a little more,” and then “just a little more,” and before she knew it, she had terraced part of her yard, purchased truckloads of new dirt, and had a backyard full of edible plants. Now she spends at least three hours in the garden every day.

These days, it’s not unusual for her to eat every meal made (almost) entirely from her own backyard. She picks berries to put on her cereal every morning, she has a salad made entirely from her garden for lunch, and she frequently makes vegetable kabobs or stir fry for dinner. And still — she has more food in her backyard than she knows what to do with. With the help of a food dehydrator, she has mastered kale chips (she just perfected a batch with chocolate) and fruit roll ups (her homegrown jalapeños add a nice kick). She has also made pepper flakes and jams. “I’m not a trained chef or anything,” she said. “I just try things out.”

Most of the time, her experiments yield delicious results, and she began sharing what she learned. She has binders full of her own recipes, although she is the first to admit that she gets inspiration from others: “I plagiarize anything and everything when it comes to food,” Leslie said. “If somebody has a recipe, I’ll take it, and I’ll try to think of ways to make it my own. I’ll say, ‘I don’t want to outdo you, but I can make it better!’” She calls herself the ‘Accidental Chef’ and has taught 20 cooking classes at Whole Foods, taught at the SOL Food Festival, taught fruit dehydration to the California Rare Fruit Growers Channel Islands chapter, and now teaches cooking classes at the Santa Barbara Public Market. Most of her recipes are gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free, in addition to being local.

Not all of her experiments work out. One time, she took the leaves from her lemon verbena plant to make tea. It turns out that the tea bags you buy in a store contain only a very small amount of lemon verbena; it is usually cut with other things, like chamomile. And when you just use straight lemon verbena, you sweat. Profusely. “I haven’t tried that again!” Leslie laughs.

Her lessons go beyond cooking. She is now an “expert in irrigation” (she fixes problems in neighbors’ sprinklers before they even know there’s a problem), and is learning more about seeding. “I went a little nuts seeding this year,” she admits. She not only germinates seeds from her own plants, but she also shares, too. A chef in Los Angeles started growing a special kind of tomato, then passed on seeds to a friend, who then gave some to Leslie, who has passed the seeds on to another friend. Now, a whole network of gardeners is connected by just one tomato plant. It’s a community.

She experiments with gardening techniques, too. “I’ve probably broken every rule there is,” Leslie said. When someone told her that cucumbers would never grow in her garden, she took it as a challenge. (They’re growing beautifully.) She also has three Tower Gardens – which are vertical soil-less growing systems – that she got from Chapala Gardens, and she plays around with those. She tries taking plants from the ground and putting them in the Tower Garden, and vice versa. Right now she has a small watermelon ballooning out of one tower.

Looking around her thriving garden today, it’s hard to imagine that for most of her life, Leslie was in no way a gardener. It has become such a big part of her life and who she is. Eating from her own backyard has changed her habits, and is now changing the habits of those around her. People seek out her classes. She posts recipes on Facebook. And she even gives her produce to her hairdresser as a tip! What began as a health issue turned into a whole new way of life. And for that, everyone who has tasted her kale chips is very grateful.

 

 

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