Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Layers of Love Unlock the magic of produce through flavor pairings and techniques that surprise and delight

Attention to balance of color and texture makes this kale salad with grapes into a main attraction. A maple-lemon vinaigrette gives it a bright note.
PHOTO CREDIT: California Table Grape Commission

The plate comes out layered, boasting half the hues in a color wheel. Raw carrots in shades of pale gold, tangerine orange and butterscotch blonde curl over the deeper-hued reds, hennas and russets that carrots take on when brown-sugar roasted. Spring-green carrot tops add a fresh, foraged look. This Roasted and Raw Carrot Salad with

Chickpea and Honeyed Sherry Vinaigrette will be showcased on the opening menu at The Guild House, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants’ newest concept, opening in January at Le Méridien Columbus, The Joseph Hotel, in Columbus, Ohio. Here is what’s remarkable about this dish—it represents the evolution happening in produce menu development. Its many-layered splendor of hot/cold, raw/roasted, vinegared/fresh vegetable composition illustrates the next wave of produce recipe innovation.

We’ve seen produce leap from afterthought to menu star over the last five years. And with this has come a greater emphasis on the thoughtful combination of flavors and textures.

Indeed, the produce-centric possibilities chefs are exploring are vast. In palate-pushing fashion, chefs are layering vegetables, fruits and herbs raw, pickled, fire-roasted, fermented, grilled, puréed, crisped, smoked—sometimes all on the same plate. Garnishes foraged from the edges of known edibility (weeds, leaves, grasses) add intrigue. Growing numbers of chefs are sourcing plants arrested in various stages of development, serving buds, flowers, shoots and green fruit as novelties, along with traditional fully ripened produce. They’re cutting waste by creatively utilizing trim—stems, fronds and fiber—right into preparations. And there’s more experimentation with fermented and cultured produce, as well as what’s being pickled, dehydrated and smoked.

Exactly what mix of cooking techniques and produce gets layered on each plate varies as widely as season, restaurant location and chef personality. But in every instance, chefs want to showcase individual vegetables and fruits to achieve the best possible flavor and presentation, balancing color, texture and temperature to add interest and originality. There are no set rules.

Produce Potential
The recipe development around produce now often takes as much thought as any other part of the plate. “Produce is the first thought, not the afterthought, in my creative process,” says John Asbaty, chef at Chicago’s White Oak Tavern & Inn. “Instead of starting with a cut of meat and asking what vegetable can go with that, I say, ‘What beautiful produce varieties are in season here now, and what protein will enhance those?’”

“This evolution has been a long time coming,” says Billy Allin, chef-owner of Cakes & Ale and Café at Cakes & Ale, his New American restaurants in Decatur, Ga. “I have always thought about fruits and vegetables as a starting point for menu development but have approached this philosophy more seriously each year,” says Allin. “Seasonality, availability and better nourishment are what really drives our thought process.”

“It just makes sense creatively,” agrees Steve McHugh, chef-owner at Cured, a charcuterie and seasonal American restaurant in San Antonio. “With protein, it’s pretty much going to be the same thing unless the meat marketers discover some secret muscle on a pig that no one knew was there,” McHugh laughs. “But with produce, there’s almost unlimited variety and possibility. The seasonality and local nature makes it more special, fleeting, unique.”

Brassicas are stars of the produce world for their versatility and flavor. Cauliflower steaks earn center-plate status when topped with umami-rich mushrooms, crispy fried shallots and the bitter notes of radicchio. photo courtesy of markon cooperative inc..

Chefs say that from the guest’s perspective, curiosity about and demand for multi-dimensional produce options has blossomed, both due to the dining public’s interest in lighter, healthier eating and to a greater awareness about fresh seasonal produce through community-supported agriculture and farmers’ markets. On their end, chefs report that the quality, depth and range of their produce offerings has improved due to their own ever-closer alliances with farmers and distributors, as well as their commitment to serving what’s in season.

One Item, Many Ways
Like Alain Ducasse and Eric Ripert before them, many chefs like to hone in on one item prepared myriad ways, as a tasting dish. This approach offers a study in textural possibility. One ingredient prepared in multiple ways elevates visual interest and texture while keeping flavors complementary to one other. “Just look at fennel,” says Annie Pettry, chef-partner at Decca, a seasonal American restaurant in Louisville, Ky. “There is such a broad spectrum of possibilities, from the earthy decadent creaminess of a purée to the anise-fresh crunchiness you get with shaved raw fennel. The green fronds add a bright vegetal note to a plate, and the pollen a subtle earthy anise roundness.”

One way that chefs nuance the one-item-many-ways plate is to compound the number of cultivars of that “one item” that are used in the same dish. Just as The Guild House carrot salad has several cultivars of carrot, at The Squeaky Bean in Denver, partner Josh Olsen and executive chef Theo Adley like to grow and use multiple cucumbers for different flavors. “Armenian for their lemony taste, Mexican sour gherkins [also known as “mouse melons”] for their sweetness, and Suyo Longs for their strawberry-like flavor,” says Olsen. Adley thinks the assortment, lightly pickled, goes well layered in a salad of Red Russian kale, pickled Fresno peppers and shishito relish.

Tyler Brown, executive chef at the Capitol Grille at The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, uses three different varieties of beets—Detroit Dark Red for their earthy, classic beet-y flavor, Chioggia Guardsmark for their candy-striped appearance, and Golden for their sweet flavor and sunshine color. He uses all in his Beets Five Ways dish, with beets roasted, raw, pickled, green and in a vinaigrette.

Layering many different vegetables, fruits and herbs also works—with careful consideration. At Niche in St. Louis, chef Gerard Craft and executive chef Nate Hereford created a Hen of the Woods layered produce dish, combining chorizo-spiced mushrooms with puréed corn, pickled peaches and raw, shaved fennel. “Instead of the traditional pork, we use the rich, fat mushrooms, roasting them with chorizo-spiced compound butter made with garlic, smoked paprika and cayenne,” says Hereford. “The acid of the peaches cuts the fat nicely and adds a pop of color to the plate, and the sweet richness of the corn and crisp fennel really round out the flavors and textures.”

Executive chef at Bow & Stern Oyster Bar in Chicago, Brian Greene likes the interplay of gutsy flavors and soft and crispy textures in his best-selling appetizer of brassicas and kale. “It’s like adult chips and dip,” says Greene. Multicolored sautéed and herb-seasoned cauliflower florets are layered beneath stained-glass crisps of flash-fried Brussels sprout petals and kale leaves, with dollops of burrata cheese to dip into, a drizzle of saba (grape-must reduction) providing the acid component, and micro greens for color.

Brassicas are also a flavor focus in True Food Kitchen’s new autumn salad. Culinary Standards Chef Michael Sullivan says inspiration for the dish came out of availability discussions with farmers around the country who supply True Food Kitchen’s 10 units. With cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and beans as the best system-wide option, Sullivan and his team at Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts, which owns True Food Kitchen, went to work creating the dish. “Once all the fall vegetables are roasted, we toss them with cannellini beans and horseradish vinaigrette. Dried mulberries and pomegranate seeds add texture and make the flavors really stand out.”

Cameron Mitchell’s new Roasted and Raw Carrot Salad with Chickpea and Honeyed Sherry Vinaigrette layers hot and cold, soft and crunchy, savory and sweet. It’s one of the small plate features at The Guild House, opening at The Joseph Hotel in Columbus, Ohio, in January, 2015. photo courtesy of monica kass rogers.

Trending Techniques
Flavor-enhancing techniques for layered produce that are trending right now include wood-smoking, roasting in embers and dehydrating. Chefs also talk about increased experimentation with fermented vegetable condiments such as Sriracha and miso, as well as culturing vegetables.

At Niche in St. Louis, Hereford says smoking carrots before dehydrating them adds an intense, smoky carrot flavor to his carrot tasting dish. In it, Hereford layers carrots that have been ember-roasted, over creamy puréed Yellowstone carrots and lemony-tart wood sorrel, carrot tops, parsley and lovage tossed in carrot-juice vinegar, plus crunchy puffed quinoa and the cool balancing acid of buttermilk gelée. “I dehydrate the smoked carrot for about one and a half weeks until it’s completely dry, like sticks,” says Hereford, “Then I shave it over the finished dish.”

Hereford also makes the most of misos. At Niche, a schmear of miso provides a natural funky flavor base upon which Hereford layers produce and proteins. Hereford likes miso so much, he’s made many local renditions—Missouri soybean, black bean, red bean, corn—each of which take from four to eight weeks to ferment.

In a clever spin on pork cracklins, McHugh likes to top his Beet, Avocado & Citrus Salad with beet cracklins. To make them, he juices beets, dehydrates and grinds the beet fiber into powder, and then vacuum packs the juice with the beet powder and tapioca starch. After being flattened with a roller, the beet mixture is steamed in the vacuum bag to cook the starch. The resulting beet pancake then goes into the dehydrator to be dried and cracked into beet chips. Deep fried, the chips puff up into beet cracklins.

Chef Jessica Emich, a culinary school grad who also has a master’s degree in holistic nutrition, achieves the sweet-and-sour flavor of her cultured carrots, salsa and red cabbage slaw by simply salting, pounding and naturally fermenting the vegetables sans vinegar. Emich says culturing is one of the flavor- and digestion-enhancing methods she uses at Shine, the gluten-free, whole food restaurant she runs with her two sisters in Boulder, Co. Emich features the cultured carrots in a curry dish with massaged kale and seaweed; the salsa goes with jackfruit tacos, and the slaw in a pork dish.

Getting Guest Buy-in
When a vegetable composition includes unfamiliar elements, it can play as interesting, or off-putting. Either way, chefs say servers play a crucial role. “There’s still a learning curve,” says Pettry. “We find that guests are really open to vegetables new ways but may be a little hesitant if they are used to having a specific vegetable hot instead of cold, or cooked instead of raw. Having a server say, ‘You know, I used to hate beets, but now that I’ve tried them in this preparation, I love them,’ can go a long way,” Pettry says.

It’s also helpful to include elements in a dish that evoke a feeling of familiarity. Chef Ryan Tate, at Blenheim restaurant in New York, points to his chilled tomato consommé presented with a garnish of tiny Mexican sour gherkins still attached to their flowers. “Everybody knows tomato and cucumber salad, so that familiarity is there, even though the recipe and presentation surprise,” says Tate.

Chefs say they’ve only scratched the surface with produce possibilities. “It’s exciting for me when guests try some unfamiliar produce or layered preparation in my restaurant and then go back to the farmers’ market with an eye toward trying it again,” says Capitol Grille’s Brown. “It broadens the spectrum of guest experience and at the same time opens the way for us to take more risks, which we absolutely will do.”

“Chefs are always looking for that next cool thing,” adds chef McHugh. “By nature, we’re always trying to one-up each other. Produce makes that easy—I don’t think we’ll ever exhaust the possibilities from the plant world.”

About The Author

Monica Kass Rogers

Monica Kass Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer based in Evanston, ill.