Could Dan Barber get chefs to totally rethink vegetables?
The chef’s new Row 7 Seed company isn’t about old heirloom varieties, but new strains, made for today's kitchens
For some chefs, food creation begins not in the kitchen, but in the garden. In our new book The Garden Chef: Recipes and Stories from Plant to Plate Alice Waters of Chez Panisse recalls how, in the 1970s, she carried the beginnings of her vegetable beds across the Atlantic. “It was the 1970s, and I had been daunted by the thought of growing food, but then, driven by the desire for that flavor from Nice, I brought lettuce seeds home with me from one of my trips to France,” she explains, “and I allowed my tiny back yard to become a salad garden for my restaurant.”
Other chefs have used their gardens to save endangered vegetable varieties, such as the Auvergne bean, or Phaseolus vulgaris, which César Troisgros of Troisgros, in Ouches, Loire, France, has saved. “This is a very old variety that is local to the region, and particularly robust,” he explains in our new book. “Two years ago there were only 22 lb (10 kg) of it left on the planet. We have a few of its seeds, and we have eaten little of the beans so far so we can multiply it. It has a floral, subtle taste, similar to orange blossom.”
Some even, find space for a little cultural cross-fertilisation. Bruce Pascoe, an Indigenous Australian writer, supplied Ben Shewry’s Attica restaurant in Ripponlea, Victoria, Australia, with the first murnong seeds the chef had ever seen.
"Murnong was a very important food source for the Bunurong people in this area,” he explains in our book. “Before white settlement it was cultivated everywhere around here. When we planted our own murnong seeds a few years ago, it was the first time it had been on these soils since the estate was established 140 years ago. To grow such a culturally significant plant and serve it to our guests is something very special. It’s delicious, with little yam-like tubers.”
Yet could Waters and co be weaned off their old, heirloom varieties, and on to some newer, more flavourful, chef friendly vegetables? That’s fellow chef Dan Barber’s aim. The Blue Hill at Stone Barns chef is the co-founder of Row 7 a new seed company, with the plant breeder and Cornell associate professor, Michael Mazourek.
Together with seed salesman Matthew Goldfarb, they’ve developed a bunch of new edible hybrids that, Row 7 claim, aren’t just tasty, but also possess other features that might appeal to commercial kitchens. Its Habananda pepper offers “all the floral sweetness of the famous habanero, minus the burn,” the firm says, while its Robin’s Koginut Squash is packed with “sweetness, smooth texture, storability, yield and a built-in ripeness indicator to ensure it’s picked for peak flavour,” says Row 7.
Whether it wins over the culinary community remains to be seen. But Barber hopes fellow chefs will help him and his colleagues develop their lines, perhaps with a little friendly feedback. “We continue to update,” Barber told the website Grub St. this week. “We aren’t carrying it like an heirloom variety to the next generation — we’re trying to iterate.”
To find out more about the gardening techniques of the star chefs order a copy of The Garden Chef: Recipes and Stories from Plant to Plate here.