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Powering Up Produce When chefs make produce craveable, customers come back for more

Not Your Average Joe’s new Capellini Nuevo pasta dish cleverly combines Italian and Mexican flavors and utilizes five kinds of vegetables, including grilled corn and crispy zucchini frites.
PHOTO CREDIT: Not Your Average Joe’s

Pop’s Seafood Shack & Grill, a seasonal dock-and-dine restaurant in beachy Island Park, N.Y., is locally famous for three things: outdoor tiki bars, steam pot mussels, and fresh corn on the cob. The corn is available in seven versions, including Cajun (with feta cheese, lime and spices), Bleu Cheese, Bacon Wrapped with jalapeño-honey drizzle, and Mango BBQ with pineapple salsa. The ears of corn are batch-cooked three times a day and kept warm until an order comes in, then rolled, wrapped or drizzled with toppings. Customers can’t resist them, says proprietor George Voutsinas Jr.: On a good night, the kitchen can crank through 220 to 260 portions of the $4 to $6 specialty. You do the math.

That’s the power of produce. Ramp up the flavor, prep it imaginatively, merchandise it brilliantly, and you’ve got a craveable signature item that customers will come back for.

Passion for Produce
Produce presents a great creative challenge, but one that pays off with craveability when culinary passion factors into the process. “With fruits and vegetables, there’s always something new to experiment with,” says Nico Romo, executive chef of Fish restaurant in Charleston, S.C.

Fish’s hybrid French-Asian concept emphasizes creative dim sum, such as Quail Leg & Egg with fennel kimchi. It also engineers its portions into Petite, Medium and Large Plates. Both of these approaches make it easy to incorporate fresh seasonal produce in ways that appeal to diners, particularly those who may not be thinking about eating their vegetables. Case in point is a ratatouille-filled wonton. By itself, the vegetable stew wouldn’t move as well, asserts Romo, but stuffed into a wonton, it becomes fun and appealing. “The customer says, ‘Hmm, I’ve never seen that before—I think I’ll try it!’”

Fruits and vegetables also appeal to diners who want to see healthier options, adds the chef, even if they don’t necessarily order them. The colorful crudité plate, for instance, is not only a great vehicle for seasonality (the only constant is local radishes with butter), but it also appeals to lighter eaters and groups who want to share something vegetable-y. With components such as Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and beets and ponzu, it’s an attractive plate “for the table.”

This share-and-sample approach extends to the dessert menu, with items like a sweet Dim Sum plate with coconut panna cotta, strawberry shortcake parfait, crème brûlée cheesecake and mint fudgesicle. There’s also an unusual Chocolate Charcuterie Plate that allows Romo to fully utilize seasonal fruits in their bounty, with accompaniments such as strawberry-basil jam and pineapple ginger rillettes. Along with dark chocolate pâté and chocolate almond salami, the rillette uses a traditional charcuterie technique: the peeled fruit is cooked down with fresh ginger, then shredded and whipped with buttercream to resemble the pork pâté, only lighter.

A Healthy Dose
Zach Wethington, chef of the new Flower Child in Phoenix, is determined to help his customers eat more fruits and vegetables. Part of Fox Restaurant Concepts, the fast-casual concept features a produce-forward menu that showcases such sections as Salads and Vegetable & Grain Plates, with proteins (grass-fed beef, all-natural chicken, sustainable salmon and organic tofu) offered as à la carte add-ons.

“This menu is really fun for me,” says Wethington. Roasted sweet potato is glazed with a Sriracha-spiked sesame vinaigrette and served with bok choy and sesame seed. Fresh corn is shaved from the cob, steamed with salted water, dressed with Greek yogurt and Parmesan, then mixed with quinoa to create a umami-rich riff on creamed corn. Sautéed spinach is enlivened with garlic, chile flakes and lemon. Flavors like these build a fan base.

The Vegetable & Grain Plates are designed as a mix-and-match program—one for $4, two for $7, three for $10—and balanced to encourage experimentation or comfort. There are straightforward Seasonal Vegetables and gluten-free Mac & Cheese, and more unique Indian Spiced Cauliflower (with turmeric, dates and almonds), French Green Lentils (fennel and thyme), and Kale & Apple Slaw.

All told, the plates generate about 30 percent of total sales. Staged cooking in small batches throughout the day ensures freshness and service speed. “We want it to be special every time you come in,” says Wethington.

Stem to Root
“Because we use so much organic produce, we need to find a way to work around the imperfections and also use every possible scrap of our fruits and vegetables,” says Chris Chung, chef/co-owner of Aka Bistro, in Lincoln, Mass., who grew up in Macao and trained in fine-dining restaurants in Boston. His menu melds French and Japanese influences with an emphasis on seasonal local ingredients.

Hence the “stem to root” utilization. While proteins stay more or less constant throughout the year, produce-based accompaniments are always changing, and there are many à la carte sides, such as Onion & Mushroom Ragout, Edamame with Lardons, and Herb-Roasted Summer Squash. A simple ingredient like a carrot becomes “more so” when it is gently stewed in a mixture of butter and carrot juice (made from the less photogenic or shapely specimens), and sprinkled with carrot tops, which are also infused into vinegar to dress a carrot salad or turned into a fragrant pesto.

One Aka signature dish that customers can’t get enough of is the Portobello Mushroom Frites, served with miso, wasabi and Thai curry aïolis. “Diners love crispy fried textures, but they are becoming more concerned with health,” explains Chung. “So instead of a straight-up starch, we created these frites.” To order, the cleaned mushrooms are cut into batons, dipped in tempura batter and quickly fried in very hot oil, creating a soft interior and crispy exterior that contrasts with the creamy aïoli sauces. “It’s one of our top-selling items, and I couldn’t take it off the menu if I tried.”

Presentation with Impact
At HaVen, an international-style gastropub in Miami Beach, executive chef Todd Erickson has turned the once lowly cauliflower into a standout signature with the decadent Cauli-polonaise—a roasted whole cauliflower topped with rye crumbs, parsley, black truffle butter and a fried egg.

“I think it’s great that vegetables are finally getting their time in the spotlight,” says Erickson, who wanted to create a veggie-based side that would be appropriate for shareable settings. Drawn to the natural large-format portion size of cauliflower and inspired by the old-school Polonaise prep style (vegetables topped with crumbs, butter and cheese and a garnish of chopped hard-boiled egg), the chef went over the top by roasting half-heads, slathering them with truffle-peel butter and grated Gruyère, then returning them to the oven to create a crisp, flavorful shell that can be held until service.

To order, the vegetable is dusted with toasted pumpernickel crumbs that have been mixed with mustard, Maldon sea salt and shichimi togarashi pepper, then dried in the oven and “pumped” with a little truffle oil to make them more aromatic. The finishing touch is a sunny fried egg—which nods to the hard-boiled garnish and adds a gorgeously moist, runny element when it’s broken into.

The $11 Cauli-polonaise has been a huge success. The “What’s that?” curb appeal keeps the kitchen prepping them at a rate of up to 60 orders a night.

And down the street at the fast-casual Huahua’s Taqueria, Erickson has created another must-order in the form of the elote, grilled Mexican-style corn on the cob drizzled with olive oil, slathered with custom-spiced chipotle mayo, rolled in crumbled Cotija cheese, sprinkled with chile-lime salt and chopped cilantro, then loaded onto a stick so its fans can snack and advertise as they walk the streets. “My God, talk about craveable,” says Erickson. “People really connect with this—it’s been a hands-down runaway success for us.”

Preserving Flavor
For Paul Fehribach of Big Jones, a Southern-style restaurant in Chicago, bounteous fruits and vegetables should be preserved in the time-honored country way. “When you’re using seasonal produce, you’ve got to deal with everything coming into the kitchen at once,” he says. “Fortunately pickles, relishes and jams are some of the most flavorful things you can make. People absolutely love them.”

Fehribach has a special walk-in for curing and storing fresh (rather than pressure-canned) pepper jelly, piccalilli, strawberry preserves, chow-chow, spiced damson plums, pear chutney, and enough pickled vegetables to keep the $9 Pickle Tasting (served with butter and house-baked Sally Lunn bread) flying out of the kitchen. Many products are also heavily cross-utilized—chow-chow on the Fried Chicken Sandwich and pickled okra with the Sea Island Pea Falafel Salad.

No vegetable is too arcane or un-trendy for Fehribach to turn into something delicious: rutabagas made into a simple bisque with skim milk and leeks, topped with candied apples and rye croutons; pink-skinned scarlet turnips, roasted with a simple gin syrup; parsnips, poached and paired with pickled beets, Meyer lemon, candied peanuts, pea shoots, and benne (sesame seeds); and “swamp cabbage,” Southern parlance for the palmetto tree that was once a local source of hearts of palm, the tops of which he purées and serves with crab cakes and spicy pineapple relish.

The chef even makes his own “big hominy” (as opposed to ground hominy grits) for pozole, using an exacting, multi-step process for turning starchy Henry Moore varietal field corn into slaked, dried kernels, which can also be sautéed with shallots and butter for a traditional Southern side dish.

“I approach fruits and vegetables for every characteristic of its flavor, texture and color,” says Fehribach. “It’s how you create truly delicious food and set yourself apart.”

Bringing Out the Best
Parlaying a background in fine dining into the world of chain menu R&D has meant many things for Jeff Tenner—one of which is creating fruits and vegetables that will be appealing to a broad cross-section of diners. As the executive chef of Not Your Average Joe’s, a 21-unit chain based in Massachusetts, he has helped to shift the menu focus more squarely onto produce, adding emphasis to vegetables and fruits with distinctive flavors and sophisticated cooking techniques.

“I want to use produce as a driver of flavor, color and texture, not just an accompaniment to proteins,” he explains, pointing to the Capellini Nuevo pasta. This new menu item is tossed with sautéed shrimp, grilled corn, cilantro and arugula and topped with tomatillo-chipotle sauce, Cotija cheese and crispy zucchini fries, providing a Latin twist to a familiar Italian specialty while incorporating five kinds of vegetables. “I love the idea of using fried zucchini to provide a textural counterpoint to the other components,” says Tenner. “It also makes the whole dish approachable—the customer reads the description and says, ‘I know what that is.’”

Another vegetable-focused menu item is the Goat Cheese and Artichoke Cannelloni, served with basil chicken. Potato, kale and pine nuts are added to the roasted artichoke and cheese filling, and the dish is finished with tomato-basil coulis, and sautéed chopped zucchini, yellow squash and asparagus. “Each of the six vegetables showcases a different shape, color, texture and prep, with the cheese and pasta functioning as a bridge between them,” says Tenner.

“You want to introduce customers to new ingredients and experiences, but because this is casual dining, it can’t be too ambitious,” he adds. “Otherwise you miss a lot of opportunities to get guests to love new things, including vegetables.”

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.