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Dining: Fresh Vegetables

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Farmer lee jones prides himself on being ahead of dining trends. He enjoys introducing chefs to novel herbs, greens, and vegetables, but on at least one occasion he failed to spot what would become the next big thing in culinary circles. In the late summer of 1994, Jones recalls, he drove past a couple hundred rows of flowering bok choy accompanied by Chris Hastings, a chef from Alabama who was visiting the Huron, Ohio, farm. A weekend heat wave had triggered the greens, originally earmarked as baby bok choy, to mature more quickly than normal. No longer baby-size, the harvest was unsalable—or so Jones thought, until the chef yelled for him to halt the tractor that was about to destroy the crop. Hastings stepped out of the truck, sampled a bok choy flower, turned to his host, and said, “Do you realize what I could do with this?”

Jones learned quickly. Bok choy blossoms are in the catalog of the Chef’s Garden, the wholesale service through which Jones—with his brother, Bobby, and his father, Bob—supplies hundreds of chefs all over the country with produce for their restaurants. New vegetables (or rather, seemingly new vegetables—leading chefs rarely use hybrids) seldom take such a dramatic route to the table, but most chefs usually are looking for something different for their menus, especially when spring arrives, says Scott Conant, the chef and founder of Manhattan’s L’Impero and Alto. “It’s about boredom, really,” he says. “As cooks, we need to be inspired. January and February are long months, and we crave the chance to do something besides squash and root vegetables.”

Vegetables are not always as exotic as they might appear. Conant is a fan of ramps, a leek that also is called ramson; he even has used the leaves, which usually are discarded, by turning them into powder to garnish a dish at Alto. The pungent seasonal plant, which belongs to the same flora family as garlic and onions, has down-market roots: Ramps grow wild throughout America and are a favorite in the Appalachians, where several towns hold festivals to celebrate their spring arrival. Demand for ramps has risen so sharply—Conant recalls it selling for $5.50 to $6 per pound last year—that in 2002, officials at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, began enforcing laws forbidding visitors from gathering plants within the park’s borders because too many ramps were being taken. (Park officials previously permitted locals to collect modest amounts of ramps to cook in their own kitchens.)

Like music connoisseurs who prefer unknown bands to headliners, the best chefs usually are sampling food items that home cooks and most diners will not see for months or years. As Tony Esnault, executive chef at Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York, says, “I want always to be ahead of people. I don’t want to follow.” Sometimes, however, a once-trendy vegetable can be the perfect ingredient for a new dish. When Eric Ziebold of CityZen in Washington, D.C., wanted a touch of color to counteract the whiteness of the other ingredients in his scallop chowder, he used tiny diced pieces of Peruvian purple potato, a vegetable that was all the rage in the 1970s. “The most important thing is to have confidence in what you do,” says Ziebold. “I won’t use [an ingredient] if it doesn’t make sense, and if it makes sense, I’m going to use it whether it’s up-to-date or passé.”

Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, 212.265.7300, www.alain-ducasse.com
Alto
, 212.308.1099, www.altorestaurant.com
The Chef’s Garden, 800.289.4644, www.chefs-garden.com
CityZen, 202.787.6006, www.mandarinoriental.com

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