The creative use and positioning of produce communicates an operation’s culinary values, including commitment to seasonality, sourcing, freshness and, most importantly, flavor. Fruits and vegetables bring chefs menu inspirations and a greater sense of culinary connectedness
By Cathy Nash Holley
Executive Chef, Gitane and Claudine restaurants
San Francisco Bay Area chefs are lucky; we have great access to the region’s bounty of fresh produce. We have incredible farmers’ markets and an open dialogue with farmers that results in a very united industry committed to seasonal cooking.
I menu plan based on harvest. When conceiving dishes, I start with what’s fresh and at the peak of flavor, and build on that foundation. At Gitane, I combine fruits and vegetables to create new, unique sets that complement proteins. For example, I pair hearts of palm with Sierra Beauty apples in my semolina-crusted sardine appetizer, and I serve our sweet and savory Chicken Bastilla with an apricot-fennel salad.
My passion lies in creating unexpected produce pairings that express exciting new flavor profiles. Brussels sprouts are at the top of my list right now. They’ve had a bad rap in the past, but they’re very on-trend right now. They’re so versatile and can be prepared in a wide range of ways, all delicious. At Claudine, our casual, all-day eatery, I offer a raw, shaved Brussels sprout salad dressed in Banyuls, brown sugar and olive oil, topped with grana and red flame raisins, which add a bright kick of flavor and color.
At Gitane, we offer caramelized Brussels sprouts as part of the set served with pan-seared local petrale sole. The caramelization gives the sprouts a nutty taste and syncs nicely with the other components — cauliflower puree, Meyer lemon and brown butter.
Executive Chef/Co-Owner, Log Haven Restaurant
Salt Lake City
As a chef, the more connected you are to the producer of what you’re using in the kitchen, the more wholesome and real your food becomes. I’ve always appreciated the source and the backstory that comes along with my food. For me, the farm-to-table movement is really nothing new. I’ve been here about 15 years, and even back in those early days, I had 30 different small farmers growing for about six or seven restaurants.
I also work very closely with my distributor, Scott Albert, from Nicholas & Company. We’ve been business associates for about 15 years now, and Scott brings so much good energy to the table when he starts talking produce — you really get a sense of his passion. Before we get in front of any season, we start discussing possibilities in menu availability, and when it’s going to come on and off, etc. He feeds me ideas that I don’t have to go and research.
Obviously, produce at the height of its season is a must for us. That way, we can take advantage of absolute optimum fruit with flavor at its peak. But being in Utah, we have about a three- to four-month harvest window — we start seeing fresh produce in June and it’s gone in October. So then we go regional, and Scott’s got the connections for me.
Right now, I’m using these “fingerling” yams from Idaho, and they have an interesting story. I’ve been using fingerling potatoes for years, but it occurred to me that in all these years, I’ve never seen a fingerling sweet potato or yam. So I called Scott and asked if he knew of anyone doing this. He checked into it and found a sweet-potato farmer in Idaho who was just throwing out these immature sweet potatoes! He didn’t think they had any value, so this new business made the farmer incredibly happy. And they’re delicious — I toss them in brown butter and sea salt, and roast them in the oven. These “fingerlings” go in a dish with pork from a family-owned farm, a housemade ricotta gratin and local Slide Ridge Honey, which is a high-altitude honey with a flavor that’s cleaner than any I’ve ever tasted. The honey itself has an interesting backstory — Slide Ridge moves their bees to the San Joaquin valley to pollinate the orchards each spring, which no doubt contributes to the honey’s unique characteristics. What completes this pork dish is a chutney made from slab (dried) apricots from Southern California, near where I grew up — adding some childhood nostalgia to this dish as well.
Executive Chef/Senior VP of Food & Beverage Innovation, Au Bon Pain
Right now, our customers are going crazy for avocados; we use them in almost everything. We had a few days where we couldn’t keep up with demand; we were on the brink of a revolt!
Avocado is the new butter. It has a smooth richness, a cozy softness. The color and mouthfeel give it a great sense of freshness, and it’s a great contrast to crisp bacon or tomatoes. We feature it in our Chicken Club Sandwich, along with applewood-smoked bacon, tomatoes and a nice garlic aïoli on a baguette. It’s also on our whole-wheat skinny bagel, with a cage-free egg and lemon or chipotle aïoli.
With avocados, the most important thing for us is the freshness — we use only fresh, from California and Mexico. The challenge has been how to bring these in to 300 units without the overripe/underripe issues.
Technology has really helped here, with the invention of an oxygen-controlled valve. The whole case comes wrapped in plastic and the valve only lets in enough oxygen to keep the avocados ripe. Inside the case, they’re all perfectly ripe and ready to eat. The quality and consistency are great.
I’m also doing a lot of work on salads — revising them to include more grains and legumes, and very fresh vegetables. I’m currently developing a salad with 38 ingredients! Produce in general is a very big trend, and I’m looking for ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in general.
Culinary Director, A Good Egg Dining Group
We operate six different concepts in the Oklahoma area, so we obviously use produce in a lot of different ways. But what I’m inspired by right now is incorporating it into drinks. Generally speaking, mixology is a hot topic, and fresh produce, whether fruits or vegetables, is the predominant driver within the mixology trend.
I’m working with our mixologist Jason Ewald and that collaboration is producing some interesting results — it’s fun to bring a chef’s perspective to the project. We’re working on developing new cocktails for the menu at Cheever’s, which incorporates a lot of Southwest/Tex-Mex influences. For a Margarita-inspired mezcal or blond tequila drink, we’re juicing fresh kiwis with lime and making a jicama simple syrup. Herbs are also a big thing — we’re looking at fresh basil and cilantro, and muddling and incorporating them into drinks. Also, infusing herbs and chiles into spirits themselves, like a basil- and Thai chile-infused vodka.
We’re careful to select certain produce items that remain true to the ethnicity of our concepts. Customers want to feel a consistency across the menu, from salads to beverages to desserts, and it’s important to be on topic with the type of ingredients we use. Ultimately, we want to be fresh in the produce sense, but also in the progressive or innovative sense — using produce to do so.
Executive Chef, Cal Dining
University of California, Berkeley
In general, I try to use fresh, seasonal and local produce that is simply prepared. We have relationships with local farmers and purveyors that allow us, in some cases, to bring in items that were harvested just the day before, specifically for us. We have a mutually beneficial relationship with many farmers as well. Sometimes they’ll have a bumper crop that they can’t move fast enough and we can easily bring in a large volume for a great price.
In March 2006, Cal Dining received the nation’s first organic certification on a college campus, and we launched our first organic salad bar in April of that year. Now, all four of our residential dining halls are certified, and feature 100 percent organic salad bars. Becoming certified guarantees the integrity and quality of our ingredients and shows our continued commitment to environmentally friendly and sustainable farming practices.
One new ingredient we’ve been using recently is yu choy, a leafy Asian green in the same family as bok choy. It has a tender stem, delicate flavor and beautiful yellow flowers. We cut the larger pieces into a more manageable size, but keep the edible stems — they add a great crunch. We give it a quick stir-fry in hot oil with garlic, chile flakes and oyster sauce or a vegan mushroom-soy sauce. It’s so simple and fast, but very delicious.
We also use a ton of potatoes — they’re very comforting and are a great vehicle for flavor. We menu a variety of preparations: crispy breakfast potatoes with chorizo, roasted potatoes with garam masala and cilantro, classic buttery mashed potatoes, and even a vegan mashed potato with extra-virgin olive oil and roasted garlic.
In order to offer strawberries at their peak of flavor, Daily Grill decided to make its Strawberry Shortcake a seasonal rather than year-round offering, which creates a buzz of anticipation among loyal customers. Photo courtesy of DAILY GRILL. AZMIN GHAHREMAN
Chef/Owner, Sapphire Laguna
Laguna Beach, Calif.
Produce reflects the turning of the sun and the earth and the moon, and everything we do at Sapphire Laguna is driven by produce. Every area of our kitchen, from garde manger to saucier to desserts, uses a lot of produce.
Pound for pound, the value and the volume of produce is incomparable to protein. And the seasonality aspect forces you as a chef to be much more dynamic.
At Sapphire Laguna, everything’s fresh, with the exception of some sauce ingredients — fruit that’s been picked at its peak and pureed and frozen for use in saucing, like mango coulis.
For one dish, we use Brussels sprouts with pork shanks, apple and bacon. We take them apart leaf by leaf and then sauté quickly — this goes really well with pearl-onion jus. Come summer, we’ll be grilling fresh peaches for use across the menu, and later on, using fresh peaches for a relish alongside a barbecue dish, which we might serve with a nice salad of leafy kale and fresh cherries, to bring back the seasonality.
I’m constantly amazed and inspired by the new produce discoveries on a walk through the farmers’ market. Last fall, I was totally blown away by the number of new apples that I had never heard of. Honeycrisp has been around for a few years now, but there were probably 20 different apple varieties that were new to me!
VP of Culinary, Grill Concepts
Woodland Hills, Calif.
Seasonality is really what helps us deliver on our flavor promise. I have always felt that if you don’t find the produce you’re looking for in bountiful quantities at the farmers’ market then it might be time to consider removing it from your special menu.
A few years ago we removed the Strawberry Shortcake from our dessert menu even though it was one of our most popular items. We stopped serving it in the off months when strawberries weren’t in season and didn’t have that deep red color or great flavor. Of course, you can get them year-round, but for us, they just weren’t the same as when they’re in their prime. Now our guests write us and look forward to the Strawberry Shortcake returning every year.
Another item that is a little more difficult to manage is the tomato. We use tomatoes for so many menu items, but we have instituted ripening practices in our restaurants to try to achieve the best-tasting tomato in the off season.
And even though it’s been around for years, arugula is a new item to the Daily Grill. We’ve just recently introduced it as a topping on the new Salmon Burger that’s on our Simply 600 menu. It adds so much flavor, and its peppery-lemon flavor really complements the salmon. We have since added it to our salad greens and we’re also playing around with it in pasta dishes — it sautés up beautifully.
Executive Chef, Asador, Renaissance Dallas Hotel
Asador is a very farm-to-table restaurant; we use a lot of local produce and work closely with local farmers. Our partnership with our farmers is paramount to our mission. Rocky and Celeste at Tassione Farms, for example, are some of the best farmers I’ve ever worked with. They have a hydroponic farm, and whatever comes out of their gardens, we use.
Our menu changes regularly, depending on what our farmers are growing. This forces me to think on my feet, and that’s where the passion really comes in — I like the day-to-day challenge of my job. Because I never know what produce might be coming in, I have menu categories that I leave generic. For example, Sautéed Greens and Grilled Garden Vegetables have a permanent place on the menu, but we don’t provide descriptions of each dish, as they change depending upon what produce comes in.
Rocco’s Garden Salad is another menu fixture, and the ingredients change depending upon what Tassione Farms is growing. Right now, it’s made up of watermelon radish, shaved golden beets, carrots and a mix of pea tendrils and claytonia. I top that with a lemon-thyme vinaigrette and local feta cheese. The flavors are immaculate.
Watermelon radish is an interesting ingredient. It’s the size of a tennis ball and when you cut into it, it looks like the inside of a watermelon — the outer layer is greenish and it’s red on the inside. The flavor is more mild, not as spicy as the smaller radishes, but it’s still crisp and clean.
Given the heavy Hispanic influence of our region and concept, we use a lot of peppers. A lot of them are dried, but I’m wanting to do more with fresh peppers like our shishitos. I quickly fry them and make a tequila-lime sea salt to mellow out the heat; they’re a delicious snack. I’m also looking at more squashes and edible flowers, and I’m really big on greens. A new variety for us is wrinkle crinkle cress, which is almost the size of parsley, but it’s got a bit more spice to it. &
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