Jason Michael Thomas is a name you should get used to hearing. (And doesn’t it just roll off the tongue?) This social media savvy chef is on a mission to bring his love for local, sustainably grown food to a global audience. Jason runs Urban Awareness Gardens, a full-time small farm that sits adjacent to his home in the Herron-Morton area. The abundant plants overflow into Jason’s house, where tomatoes, sweet potatoes, pepper plants, eggplants, and more grow safe and snug away from the cold winter. Recently, I sat down with Jason to learn more about his journey. His dog, Hugo, greeted me at the door and watched us silently during the interview. Afterwards, we made tacos! Well, Jason made tacos and I happily consumed them. I highly recommend his farm to table dining experience. Actually tasting the intensified flavor that fresh ingredients offer was game-changing! Even the flour in Jason’s homemade bread is local. His main goal is to educate others on sustainable and regenerative agriculture while also having a good time. A regular spot on TV with Indy Style allows him to do just that. Talking with Jason taught me a lot about the food industry and ways I can be more thoughtful with my dollars. Keep on reading to learn more about what it takes to run a small farm, next steps, and ways in which we can all make a difference.
Much like Anthony Bourdain and other chefs, Jason Michael Thomas likes to keep it simple when he’s not cooking for other people: nothing too fancy, lots of natural foods, clean proteins, fruits and veggies. “Tonight you can probably smell it… I just put out a video on my turkey wings,” Jason says. Indeed, the mouthwatering scent lingered in the air. Nearly everything in the chef’s arsenal of ingredients is locally sourced and fresh, and often times homegrown.
But there’s a lot more to Jason Michael Thomas than the ability to make a mean taco or tasty wings. You might recognize him as the front man for the band X-Ray Roger Jimmy. Maybe you even attend one of his weekly martial arts classes. Jason makes time for the things he enjoys, despite the challenges of running a full time farm. If you’re lucky, you might even catch an X-Ray Roger Jimmy reunion tour. “I have a hard time stopping something that I really enjoy,” Jason admits. “Food is another big chapter of my life.”
Jason’s exposure to wild foods began at an early age as a Boy Scout. Then, at fifteen, he worked as a busboy at a country club in South Bend, Indiana. Eager to learn, he managed to work his way up the hierarchy and do some cooking. The experience that really fueled his interest in food, however, was his year living in France. He studied the language, as well as gastronomy, food, wine, and other aspects of French culture. Most of all, he observed the way the French bought their food. They went to the market not once a week, but daily, craving fresh bread for every meal. “The baguette is a real thing,” Jason laughs. “I’m dying to go back and see how much they feel they’ve been Americanized.”
As he started to grow his own food – raspberry bushes, cherry tomatoes – Jason realized that picking plants the day they were ripe completely transformed their flavor. This revelation has led him to grow more and more types of crops. So for Jason, the passion for fresh food remains very real.
Passion is not the only ingredient for success, however. It hasn’t been easy to maintain a small farm and find the money to continue doing so. “My grandfather told me that if I did anything long enough, I could get paid to do it,” Jason told me. “I’ve tested that principle a few times now.” To keep the cash flowing, Jason has eliminated all middle-men. Other than the occasional volunteer, Urban Awareness Gardens is a one-man show. Right now, Jason’s main focus is educating the public on sustainable foods through TV appearances and private dinners. “These dinners are able to pay the expenses of the farm in a way that all the other things won’t do,” says Jason. He hopes to grow his YouTube channel and get noticed by other news channels, such as CNN. Learning how to self-promote his band is a skill Jason feels has transferred over to his farm business. “I’ve settled on something that’s a powerful idea. That idea’s time has come.” This statement certainly rings true, as many consumers are opting for healthier, more environmentally friendly food options. Jason encourages people to vote with their dollars and ditch “supermarket culture” in favor of farmers markets – choosing higher quality, sustainable foods over convenience.
However, in our attempt to eat healthier and buy ethically sourced foods, it is easy to be led astray. For instance, Jason warns against “green washing” or misleading food packaging. All natural chicken can still be mass produced and those chickens never see the light of day or get to eat a bug (which apparently chickens love to do). You’re paying more money for the “organic” product, which is really just the same low quality product, except now it’s wearing a fancy dress. And don’t get Jason started on Impossible Burgers. Let’s just say they really do more harm than good.
If you’re a fun-loving foodie and looking for a way to get involved with Jason’s sustainable food movement, Indy Gourmet Club may be the place for you. According to Jason, it started as a way to convince people that locally farmed and raised foods are gourmet foods. “I just think that local food is more exquisite,” Jason says. He puts on several events through Indy Gourmet Club, including Cheese Wars and Barbecue Wars. You can expect roughly 300 people at these events, local milk from 8-10 farmers, and 10-15 chefs battling it out for the title of best dish.
Jason is currently working on coming up with new concepts for the next Cheese Wars. Possible names include: Grilled Cheese Wars, Cheeseburger Wars, or Chocolate Wars. I, for one, would like to see Grilled Cheese Wars happen. Give the people what they want, Jason!