By Jim DeWan, Chef Instructor in the School of Culinary Arts
File this under, “Who knew?” As in, who knew that Chef Thomas Meyer raises orchids?
It seems perhaps an unlikely pastime for Chef Meyer, who so frequently is found in front of the café, partly to welcome, partly to guard against any unlawful incursions from the army of the improperly attired. Like St. Peter in a chef coat.
In fact, Chef Meyer is an avid orchidist, having raised countless numbers of the delicate plant in and around his Libertyville home over the past 15 years. “I got into it on a whim,” says Meyer. “A family member had gone into the hospital and someone had given her an orchid. When she got out of the hospital, I was going to just throw it out.”
After examining the specimen more closely, though, Meyer was quickly struck by its beauty and remembered the orchid’s reputation as being difficult to raise. “I took it as a personal challenge to see if I could get it to flower again,” he says. “After that, it just became a challenge to see how many species I could get to work.”
That challenge, it turns out, is not unlike the challenges that chefs like Meyer face every day. “There’s the air of, you want to do things correctly and then, knowing that you’re doing things correctly, you know that you’re going to obtain the same result every time,” he says. “You catch on to something, think about it, analyze it and pine over it, even something as straightforward as a braise.”
And just like braising correctly involves understanding the science behind the cooking methods and the ingredients, raising orchids involves understanding the environments in which they live along with the nature of the plant itself.
Renowned for the symmetry of their petals and their beautifully monstrous structure, like a cross between a flower and a dragon, orchids are notoriously difficult to raise. The sheer number of species—over 28,000 worldwide—make the plant particularly hard to grow and nurture simply because of the importance of reproducing the climactic conditions that allow each individual species to survive and thrive.
“Orchids are found on every continent except Antarctica,” Meyer says, “so you have to understand their terroir. If you get one from Mexico, what’s the elevation it grows at and how direct is the light and how much humidity do they normally have?”
Meyer researches each new species of orchid thoroughly before attempting to grow one. “Some are easy,” he says, “like the moth orchids. It’s really just a matter of putting them in the window. Other species, I had to build a plastic box with a halogen light and I mist them three times a day.”
Though his collection now has dwindled (dwindled!) to only about 15 plants, at one time Meyer had more than 50 blooming together. When asked how he managed to create individual environments for each of his plants, he just smiles and says, “That was a challenge.”