Ahead of Her Time- Meet One of NYC’s Commercial Roof Farm Pioneers

I first met Anne Apparu on Friday, November 16, 2012, when I volunteered at Shore Soup, a makeshift soup kitchen at 92nd Beach Street in the Rockaways.  She was cooking soup for people who had suffered huge losses at the hands of Super Storm Sandy and I was delivering it.

Across the street from where Shore Soup was happening
Across the street from where Shore Soup was happening

A cook and an artist, Anne is the child of two chefs.  She must cook.  If she doesn’t cook for three consecutive days, she tells me, she begins to get depressed. Food is her art form, her expression and, after tasting what she makes, I know it is her gift to the world.

Born in Corsica of Tunisian parents, Anne is a Sephardic Jew who kisses the Mezzuzah on her doorpost when she enters her apartment.  She has been in New York City since 1987, and, although she travels a lot, she most definitely considers New York City her home.  She says she has tried living other places but it “didn’t work out.”  After listening to her stories, I think I can understand why.  Read on and you’ll see why too.

Anne Apparu on her rooftop farm
Anne Apparu on her rooftop farm

After a day of volunteering at Shore Soup, Anne and I took the ferry back from the Rockaways to Wall Street Pier in Manhattan, together.  As we gazed out the boat’s windows at the Cross Bay Bridge and then the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, I casually commented about seeing Robert Moses’ work up-close after having just spent nearly six months plodding through The Powerbroker, the 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning book by Robert Caro about Robert Moses, the “Master Builder.”  Anne’s copy of the book, it turns out, had been in her storage unit in the Rockaways when Sandy hit.  Along with her catering equipment and other personal items, she lost the book that, before her move to Chinatown, had been her bedside reading stalwart.  She was less than halfway through it.

The early days of commerical rooftop farming in NYC
The early days of commercial rooftop farming in NYC

I promised to bring her my copy and that’s how I happened upon the marrow soup and the magical food tales that follow.

I went to see Anne again at her Chinatown apartment to learn more about her connection with food in New York City.  She was making a delicious, rich marrow soup, full of herbs and noodles – heavenly!  We spoke while she packed up the soup, transporting a homemade gourmet lunch to her fashion photographer friends.

Rooftop tomatoes
Rooftop tomatoes

Cooking has always been Anne’s passion, and from that, she may have invented  what we now know as the “pop-up restaurant.”

In 2007, her friends encouraged Anne to open a restaurant of her own, but she didn’t have the means to devote herself to a full-time restaurant.  As a compromise, she began the “18th Restaurant.” On the 18th of each month, she served full meals at her “pop-up” restaurant.  It began with invited friends, but as word got out, 18th Restaurant’s reputation grew and it became a monthly underground food happening.

Soon after the success of 18th Restaurant, she opened a café called “Homegrown” in an artists’ collective at 169 Bowery just below Delancey,   This was on the second floor in the “Collective Hardware” art space that was closed down in 2010.

At Homegrown, once again, Anne was a NYC food pioneer.  In 2008, she began collecting abandoned scraps of wood on the street and when she had enough, in 2009, she built shallow raised beds on Collective Hardware’s third-floor rooftop.  She got compost from Union Square and made more compost from kitchen scraps in her 2nd floor café .   She set up buckets and barrels to collect rainwater for irrigation.  She grew natives and curative plants from which she made infusions.  In just four inches of rich soil, she grew raspberries, vegetables and even tobacco.  Then she cooked her roof grown bounty downstairs in the café, making her one of the first commercial roof farmers in the United States.  While commercial roof farming was unheard of in 2008, just a few years later, roof farms are on hotels, grocery stores and abandoned factories all over New York City and across the United States.

Around the same time that Anne was closing up Homegrown, Rockaway Taco made this beach a hipster summer destination.  Yet, she noted there was no where else to get healthy, homestyle, affordable food for the summer residents and  for the thousands of full-time Rockaway residents, many of whom live in New York Housing Authority projects.  During the 2011 beach season, in an attempt to combat the “food desert” in the Rockaways, Anne cooked couscous dishes full of fresh and natural ingredients at Malou’s, a restaurant she opened on the boardwalk in the Rockaways and named after her grandmother.

Currently, when not feeding hungry fashion photographers (I’m sure the rail thin models don’t go anywhere near her mouthwatering lunches), Anne cooks at Growing Heart Farm‘s, 75 miles north of New York City in the Harlem River Valley.  She creates farm-to-table yoga dinners for day-retreaters.

When I asked about her describing herself as an artist, she told me about two of her projects, one in the past and one in the future.

In May 2011, the New Museum, located on the rapidly gentrifying Bowery, in fact on the exact spot where the punk rock-star incubator CBGB club once was, contacted Anne to participate in their annual Festival of Ideas, held each May.  Anne had a great, food-related (of course) idea called There are no Recipes, which culminated in a series of wonderful short videos that you can still see on Youtube.

Watch and you will see children teaching viewers cooking techniques – a salad, a quiche, a stew, a soup, a cake, or a cookie.  No recipes, just the basic guidelines and proportions.  Plus the kids always instruct you to choose your ingredients carefully, taste them to make sure you like them, clean up your kitchen and compost your scraps.  This is great stuff, and it was a big hit with children and adults at the 2011 Festival.

Looking to the future, Anne has been contacted by the New Museum again, asking for her repeat participation.  A wealth of creativity, she has another idea, this time involving growing food.  At the New Museum’s May 2013 Festival, Anne is organizing people to assemble “seed bombs,” soil infused with seeds of edible plants and mushroom “tea,” which is known for filtering out pollutants.  After the seed bombs are assembled, they will be distributed to pedestrians and cyclists who will be assigned different sections of New York City’s vast 530 miles of coastline.  The “bombs” will be launched in public places, and after that, it’s up to nature to do the work.  Healthy food will grow randomly along the waterways of New York City for the public to pick, cook and enjoy.

I may not be able to forgive Robert Moses for destroying New York City’s neighborhoods or starving the MTA of funds for decades as he built his mighty bridges and tunnels, but I am grateful to him for revealing to me the ever evolving food-centric world of Anne Apparu, roof farming pioneer.  Bon appétit!

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One thought on “Ahead of Her Time- Meet One of NYC’s Commercial Roof Farm Pioneers

  1. This is fabulous!! What a unique and talented person Anne is. I love her ideas for the pop up restaurants and for the New Museum: the children’s recipes and the seed bombs. Wow!! I need to come to NYC and eat with you at Anne’s place.

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