Chris Wertz’s life has taken a fairy tale twist, thanks to two restaurant managers.
Wertz, who gave up his Brooklyn, N.Y., bartending job to move closer to family, made fast friends with the late restaurateur Matt Haley upon his arrival in Rehoboth Beach. Two years ago, Haley hired Wentz to barkeep at one of his new acquisitions.
The two were cleaning up the area around the restaurant when they began talking landscaping. Haley loved mint and wondered if it could be trained to climb a post. Wertz said it could.
Wertz told Haley he had taken horticulture courses at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden. “He was like, ‘Oh, I never knew,’” Wertz said.
Haley, who died in a motorcycle crash in India last August, suggested Wertz create a garden at the restaurant. His encouragement led the 40-something bartender to sign up for the horticulture major at Delaware Technical and Community College to expand his skill set.
“Matt was always like that. He always took an interest in you, and he was always trying to get you to strive for better things and everything,” Wertz said. “He just said, ‘Pursue your interests.’ That’s the way Matt was.”
After Haley’s death, Scott Kammerer succeeded him as CEO of the restaurant group. Instead of expecting Wentz to double down on his bartending duties, Kammerer made Wentz’s gardening job official. As the bartender-cum-horticulturist, Wentz is planning gardens for all eight So Del Concepts restaurants.
“I’m very grateful to be offered the position, and I’m learning every day,” Wertz said. “I’m grateful to have this job because I’m a student and they allow me 100 percent creativity. They allow me to make mistakes too. We help each other — I’m learning and, in turn, I hope I’m helping the restaurants to look better.”
Although he’s done a professional about-face this year, Wertz has been hardwired to garden since he was a child in New Jersey. As he segues from talking bartending to talking horticulture, his words come more quickly and with elation. “I always did bartending for money, but I always loved horticulture,” he said. “I actually get paid for what I love to do.”
He grows mint and basil for mojitos, peppers for sauces, herbs for the kitchens, and Brussels sprouts because they were Haley’s favorite vegetable.
Wertz’s bartender side is pleased to have fresh garnishes for drinks: “Those mass-produced herbs like Cisco and stuff, the flavor and taste of it is completely different than when it’s picked right outside your door,” he said.
He’s completed Haley’s vision of a climbing mint-and-basil garden at Papa Grande’s in Rehoboth. He’s working with the chefs at Bluecoast Seafood Grill in Bethany to create a raised-bed garden. He has herbs growing in pots and in an old boat outside Fish On in Lewes, and he’s planning an herb surround for the dining patio at Northeast Seafood Kitchen in Ocean View.
“I’m starting with herb gardens,” he said. “The produce part gets a little tricky. For true farm-to-table, we don’t have enough space to really do a substantial amount. It’s all about urban gardening here, and I try to make it visually stimulating.”
Carrie Leishman of the Delaware Restaurant Association said many eateries are exploring growing their own herbs and produce, and others work with local farmers. Horticulturist James Flanigan planned the garden at House of William and Merry in Hockessin. At Pizza by Elizabeths in Greenville, a small garden behind the restaurant provides herbs for beer made on the premises.
Wertz asked the bartenders at Papa Grande not to clip the mint in the picture-perfect climbing mint-and-basil garden until it’s established. It’s his nod to Haley.
“I think about Matt Haley every single day,” he said. “I remember he told me, ‘I just want mint everywhere.’ He wanted people to be able to sit in the garden and smell mint.”