Behind the Scenes at Greens & Gills' Aquaponic Farm in Chicago

[Photographs: Tessa McLean]

When you dine out today, it's increasingly common to know where the protein on your plate comes from. Seeing the name of a farm makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, confident in knowing our burger came from a Midwest prairie and not some unknown warehouse thousands of miles away. But what about the lettuce on your burger? Or those pungent greens that garnished the soup you started with? It's usually far from our minds, but it shouldn't be. According to two childhood friends who own the aquaponic farm Greens & Gills, flavorful local greens are transforming the way Chicago looks at produce.

Co-owners David Ellis and Eric Roth are starting with local chefs, letting their aquaponically-grown greens speak for themselves as they've racked up high-profile clients like Siena Tavern, Senza, and Tru. Still, it can take a lot to convince chefs their product is worth considering. Some chefs and buyers have had issues in the past with a hydroponically produced product lacking flavor, even if it does look perfect. The difference between aquaponic and the more commonly known hydroponic production is huge, and it's something they often have to explain. I'll admit, I needed it explained, but aquaponics really is a simple system, once you get the science down.

Hydroponics relies on synthetic fertilizers, while aquaponics relies on organic fertilization from coupling the idea of growing plants in water with the notion of raising fish and microbes in recirculating systems. So at Greens & Gills, gray nile tilapia swim in four large tanks, producing ammonia-based waste that is then sent through a filter, where the solids settle out and the rest is broken down into nitrates. Those nitrates are absorbed by the plants growing in hydroponic beds. After absorbing the nitrates, the plants have cleaned the water for the fish, making a closed-loop system beneficial for both parties. Aquaponics doesn't use any fertilizers or pesticides at all—if they did it would hurt the fish.

Once the fish are all grown up, they'll be sold just like the greens. They've been featured in the past as part of Bull and Bear's popular fish tacos.

Top Chef and owner of Siena Tavern, Fabio Viviani, is an outspoken fan of their greens, and having him on your side is always helpful. But the main reason why they've been successful? They maintain incredibly high standards, not allowing any sub-par product to leave the farm. Neither Ellis nor Roth had a background in farming, so when they both decided to do something completely different with their lives, they knew they had to do it right.

Ellis and Roth grew up together. Their parents were best friends in Milwaukee and three years ago Ellis decided he was ready for a change. After working for the family business in marketing and sales, he was looking for something he could take on for himself that combined his passion for food, science, and making a difference in the world: "Not to get overly tangential, but that idea of making a difference in my lifetime might have been the strongest driver of my decision to start researching the concept of starting a local farming business venture."

Meanwhile, Roth was living the ski bum life in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, biding his time while he figured out exactly what his path would be. He knew he never wanted to be part of the "corporate world" and he really believed in sustainability, so when his old friend called him up to tell him about his business idea, it was a natural fit. They spent much of 2010 and 2011 working on a business model, researching and developing, and finally made the big move to Chicago in February of 2012.

When they realized their farm would be entirely indoors, they knew they needed just the right space. They found that space at The Plant, an old industrial building in the Back of the Yards. The non-profit deserves an entire article on its own—it's a fascinating incubator of food businesses as well as a research and education center striving for a closed waste system. After more struggles than they anticipated with the city, they finally received their official license in the summer of 2012 and became the first licensed aquaponic farm in Chicago.

It's a big achievement, but these are humble guys, and they insist they're not doing much that's really new. They're just doing it the best way possible. They purchased their system from Nelson and Pade and took classes to learn how to make the system work. They did research and visited existing aquaponic farms.

And like any business, it's not always easy-going. It's a seven-days-a-week industry with a lot of physical labor. They're beginning to hire more employees in addition to the many volunteers, interns, and part-time employees they have, but each step of growth presents new challenges.

As I toured the facility, they were beginning expansion, quadrupling their capacity to be able to start fulfilling larger orders. They also are interested in expanding into fruiting crops and possibly replicating their model to other markets eventually.

The best part of my behind the scenes tour? Getting to graze and taste all the delicious leafy greens they're producing. Since none of the microgreens are immediately recognizable by the eye for the flavor they represent, Roth snips bites and I try and guess what each morsel represents. I taste arugula that's more vibrant than I've ever had—it's so sharp and peppery it's almost acidic. Micro-celery tastes tangy without the watery aftertaste. Mustard greens are spicy with a lot of bite, and beetroot tastes just like the root vegetable, with an undeniable sweetness.

Amaranth, micro-carrot, borage, corn sprouts...they're growing so much stuff in that space it's hard to keep track. But I wanted to eat it all.

Chicago chefs aren't the only people able to get their hands on some Greens & Gills' product. The group was recently approached by Mariano's and hopes to be on their shelves by May. But will home cooks know what to do with the unconventional microgreens?

"They say what's popular in restaurants now is what home-cooks will be doing in 5, 10 years" Roth says. "We'll be here when they're ready."