A self-proclaimed “Instagram food freak chef,” this energetic and enthusiastic champion of sustainable food is famous for the boutique tomatoes he grows at his Urban Awareness Gardens, north of downtown. Now through a series of private dinners and the local foodie collective Indy Gourmet Club, he’s hoping to build a reputation that will help him take his message about the local food movement to a global audience.
Locavore cuisine and the Slow Food movement aren’t exactly new concepts in the culinary world. But they have no greater champion than Jason Michael Thomas, the urban farmer, Instagram chef, and self-proclaimed spokesperson for all things local and sustainable. When he isn’t posting photos from his latest private dinner, he’s tending to his crop of more than 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, prized by chefs at some of Indy’s top restaurants, which he grows alongside microgreens, Technicolor corn, and berries at his Urban Awareness Gardens. Here, the energetic Herron-Morton resident and onetime front man for the Band X-Ray Roger Jimmy, takes a moment to discuss how he got started and how he hopes to go global with his message of eating from your own backyard.
IM: You currently work as an urban gardener, a chef, a forager, and a star of YouTube videos. How would you describe all that you do?
JMT: My goal is to be an international spokesperson for the sustainable food movement. And all of the things I do—Urban Awareness Gardens, Indy Gourmet Club, the videos—are things that support that goal. I’ve partnered with a photog, a webmaster, and local farmers and chefs to build my name with the hopes of doing a full series of videos where we explore all of the great local food around the country and beyond.
IM: You started out as an entrepreneur and a musician. How did you end up concentrating on food?
JMT: I actually began my education in French and went all the way to get my masters and completed most of a PhD. But then I realized I could likely make more money in other fields, and I decided not to go any farther with my degree. In 1993, I was studying in France as part of the Notre Dame French language program, and I saw how fresh everything was and how the French went to the market not just once a week but every day. That really stuck with me. My love of gardening sprang from my realization of how delicious food could be if you picked it that day. Eventually, I saw a gaping hole in the Standard American Diet, which was being filled with processed food. It was about then that everything started happening for me. There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. People are starting to realize that if we don’t pay attention to what we put in our bodies, it’s a dangerous slippery slope.
I love Indianapolis, and I’m an Indiana boy at heart. It’s been a great place to start, but I intend to franchise my business model.
IM: Beyond gardening, foraging has been a big part of your life’s passion. When did that start?
JMT: I grew up in South Bend and was a Boy Scout around the age of 13 or 14. That’s when I first learned about wild foods. We found some pawpaws, and we thought, “What is this crazy fruit?” Later, I discovered that there was a whole world of food that you could just find and eat. Right now, I’m really excited about sumac, which is found almost everywhere in the state. If you dry the fruits, you get the tangy spice that’s used throughout the Middle East. This coming year, I plan to do foraging trips to place I haven’t been, and I’m excited for what I’ll uncover.
IM: After starting with Urban Awareness Garden, you then launched Indy Gourmet Club. How do they fit together?
JMT: I like to call Indy Gourmet Club the seductive temptress side of the farm. After I had the garden going for a while, I realized that selling vegetables wasn’t going to make much money, so I had to focus on boutique produce, especially my tomatoes. But then I realized that I could make the garden more sustainable through a series of pop-up and private dinners. Eventually, I got a regular spot on TV and started building my online profile. The dinners really help me to do that the best.
IM: Have you always been interested in cooking, and will you continue to cook once you start spreading your brand?
JMT: I started cooking when I worked at the South Bend Country Club years ago. I was a grill cook. But I’m all self-taught. I continued to do it throughout the years. I love cooking for people, so that will always be a part of what I do. Even if I get to where I want with starting Urban Awareness Gardens in other cities, I will still cook every day. It’s one of the best ways for me to spread the word that local food is gourmet food.
IM: Where do you go out for great local food in the city?
JMT: I don’t eat out all that much, but I have a few favorites. I really like Tinker Street, and it’s right in my neighborhood. They’ve been great at supporting the farm. I really enjoy what they’re doing at Gallery Pastry as well. Beholder and Bluebeard are also doing some of the best food in the city.
IM: Why are you doing what you’re doing in Indy when you could do it anywhere in the world?
JMT: I love Indianapolis, and I’m an Indiana boy at heart. It’s been a great place to start, but I intend to franchise my business model. I want to do one in Hawaii. Or maybe the south of France. I want to get up on the mountaintop and shout this [message of sustainability] as loudly as I can.