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Healthy and hearty cauliflower fritters typify the modern gastropub bites found in Los Angeles’ social dining scene. Photo courtesy of Markon Cooperative, Inc. More prominent use of produce on the plate stems from cutting-edge Los Angeles chefs

By Austin Kilham

Los Angeles sits on the edge of one of America’s most productive fruit and vegetable growing regions. Rich agricultural resources there have helped popularize the farm-to-table and locavore movements that give many California chefs their inspiration. So it comes as no surprise that restaurants in the Los Angeles area are setting the pace for innovative produce varieties and usage.

Los Angeles chefs are constantly expanding their repertoire of produce, giving new life to old standbys and experimenting with exotic ingredients from close to home and around the world. Newcomers such as radish pods, nettle and green papaya share space on the plate with fresh treatments for humble cabbages, carrots and onions. In the same way chefs have transformed tired watering holes into destination eateries all over the country, Los Angeles’ chefs are turning simple produce into flavorful stars.

They have been particularly innovative in their preparations. Charring, grilling, smoking and braising have long been reserved for proteins. Today, chefs are employing these methods to give vegetables full-bodied flavor and surprising texture. Ingredients once relegated to the side are brought to center stage, with meat playing a supporting role.

“Consumers are discovering and really enjoying these new flavor treatments,” says Gerry Ludwig, a corporate chef with distributor Gordon Food Services. Ludwig also leads trend tours for groups of chefs, and took notice of the aggressive use of produce on a recent tour of Los Angeles-area restaurants. “Even though lots of veggies are getting rich treatments, the perception of health helps drive popularity,” he adds. “They’ve taken those ingredients and gastropub techniques and made a cuisine that uses vegetables in a way that’s both rustic and indulgent.”

According to Mark Munger, vice president of sales & marketing for MCL Fresh, a Los Angeles-based distributor emphasizing organic and specialty fruits and vegetables, chefs are turning to unexpected or unfamiliar produce to create excitement on the plate.  Produce that may once have been considered exotic — bok choy, watercress and rambutan, to name a few — are now common sights on menus around Southern California.

Munger credits Los Angeles’ diverse population with the change. “It’s a positive cycle,” he says. “We’re becoming more culturally diverse every year. People who have a favorite vegetable from South America or India are bringing their knowledge of these items, and their flavors and tastes, here.” Increased consumer interest is reflected in the grower community. “If there’s a demand, they’ll learn to grow anything,” Munger says. “Almost all your Asian vegetables — bok choy, long beans, etc. — used to have a very short growing season and were usually imported. Now they’re being grown locally and year-round.”

As previously unfamiliar vegetables gain traction with consumers, chefs are figuring out how to adapt these items to suit many different menu types. Steamed baby bok choy, a leafy green, may stand in for collard greens in a Southern-inflected side dish, while Chinese long beans might be served alongside a planked salmon. “These are things you wouldn’t have found anywhere but an Asian restaurant ten or fifteen years ago,” Munger says.

Today’s exotic or envelope-pushing vegetable may turn out to be tomorrow’s staple. The raging success of Brussels sprouts is a perfect example of how a once-neglected vegetable can become trendy, thanks to increased attention by exploration-minded chefs.

“My memory was that [Brussels sprouts] were what I refused to eat as a kid,” Munger says. “Now it’s hard to go out to a restaurant and not find them.” Over the past decade, demand for the small cruciferous vegetables has spiked. “We’ve seen double-digit growth for the past 10 years,” Munger says. That increased menu presence has inspired growers to lengthen the season, so what was once a late-fall vegetable is now available year-round.

Greater availability is one thing, Ludwig says. Yet keeping the focus on produce can help the bottom line, too. “Investing a little sweat equity into less-costly ingredients is a great way for restaurants to save on cost while giving customers what they want,” Ludwig says.

That’s just what Los Angeles chefs Michael Voltaggio of ink. and Casey Lane of The Tasting Kitchen are doing in their award-winning restaurants.

Bold and innovative, chef Michael Voltaggio has made his restaurant, ink., a model for putting produce first, with dishes like roasted shishito peppers served over bonito and almond “sand” and tofu mustard. Photo courtesy of ink.
Michael Voltaggio, the season-six winner of “Top Chef,” left his position as executive chef at The Dining Room at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena, Calif., in 2010 to pursue his own project. His first signature restaurant, ink., located in West Hollywood, opened its doors in fall 2011, and since then his ambitious menus presenting American cuisine with a Los Angeles bent have kept him at the forefront of California’s culinary scene.

His recent experiments include pickled green papaya topped with the fruit’s seeds, dried and ground fine like pepper, accompanied by a purée of deep-fried cauliflower heads. Voltaggio usually thinks of vegetables first when he prepares his menus. “Chefs write a lot of recipes for vegetables that go with meat,” he says. “The recipes are composed in pieces: the meat, the thing that goes with it, and a sauce. But now, meat often comes second in the creative process.”

With the rising price of proteins, the shift is coming just in time. Voltaggio says chefs are often faced with two options. They can pass the costs on to the customer or they can create new ways to highlight other ingredients on the plate. Chefs are finding that the latter approach not only saves on cost, but also satisfies customers’ growing demand for vegetable dishes.

“The variety of techniques you can apply to vegetables is endless,” says Voltaggio. “For example, we’re steaming turnips, drying them out in a dehydrator and then braising them in meat juices. They look and taste like braised beef, but they’re turnips!” He uses several other techniques to give vegetables the craveable quality of meat, including wood smoking, grilling, charring and caramelizing.

He also uses flash microwaving. “We’ll vacuum-pack fennel or asparagus and stick it in the microwave,” he explains. “Just as the bag is about to explode, we take it out and let it collapse.” The process cooks vegetables so quickly that they remain bright and vibrant. He uses the approach with green garlic, which he then chars. The combination gives the garlic a tender, meaty quality. On ink.’s menu, the charred green garlic accompanies tender black cod and a black walnut emulsion.

Voltaggio’s carefully crafted flavor profiles and inventive menus earn him accolades. The restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times called Voltaggio’s spaghetti squash tossed with hazelnut-squid ink pesto “a revelatory dish.” Roasted shishito peppers served over bonito and almond “sand” and tofu mustard was deemed “different with every bite” by LA Weekly. Voltaggio gives the credit to the produce. “We live in what I think is the most exciting agricultural region in the country,” he says. “It’s the vegetables that make the food really great.”

Thanks to a steady demand, produce items that were once considered exotic, like bok choy, are grown year-round and readily available.

Casey Lane opened his Venice, Calif. eatery The Tasting Kitchen in 2009 so that he could focus on preparing completely handmade food. His Mediterranean-infused menu soon included fresh pasta and meats he’d cured himself. The pursuit of handmade quality and his farm-to-table sensibility also drive his interest in vegetables. “We put so much effort and time into Kobe beef, free-range chicken and heritage meats,” he says. “Finally, we’re giving that kind of attention to vegetables, too. When we braise Brussels sprouts with a tasso ham or flat cured pancetta, the meat plays the supporting role to the vegetable.”

The trend follows a shift in the way diners think about food, Lane says. People are eating out more often, in part because they view meals in a more utilitarian way. They want to eat everyday foods that are good for them, but they still want the exciting preparations they expect from restaurant meals. “These days, restaurants are a place where you meet a friend after going to the gym,” Lane says. “Vegetables make you feel like you can still go out and enjoy friends and the environment and eat something really tasty that’s nutritious, but leaves you satisfied.”

Produce that is treated with care and served in innovative, satisfying ways gets universally great feedback, he says. Cooking vegetables over wood is a great way to highlight their richness, he says. Two stand-alone menu items — eggplant with mint and asparagus with a pistachio aillade — make his point. Another favorite technique: marinating produce in vinegar before grilling or smoking it. “A lot of cooks are starting to realize the amazing flavor profiles you can get when adding high acidity to wood-grilled or braised vegetables,” he says.

At the other end of the spectrum, Lane plans to try vegetable crudos — raw vegetables paired with vinegar or citrus to create a vibrant vegetable ceviche of sorts. A simple dish of grilled asparagus and crushed pistachios lets the produce take center stage. Lane doesn’t shy away from preparing fruits and vegetables in surprising ways, either. He tops a porcini mushroom crudo with limoncello chive vinaigrette and shaved foie gras. On a vegetarian plate, he pairs porcini with burrata and squash blossoms.

As customers continue to look for new flavor experiences, Los Angeles-area chefs keep pushing produce’s potential as a modern menu workhorse, fueling a greater interest among chefs nationwide to do the same.

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