Gardeners and cooks make excellent bedfellows. Likewise, farmers and chefs, judging from the number of restaurant menus that honor the producers of their vegetables, meats and cheeses. An affectation? A fad? I think not. It reflects a passionate interest in how food comes into being. Farmers, in turn, love to see what chefs do with the food they grow. And, personally, I’m tickled when one of these culinary heroes shows up to inspect our farm’s spinach and winds up seated at our table.
“You cooked for him?” a friend will ask, after I’ve described the visitation. “Weren’t you intimidated?” One answer would be that my delight in eating is far larger than my ego. Another is that cooking, for me, is less a performance than it is a celebration of the ingredients. Many chefs would agree. No matter how elaborate the preparations in their restaurant kitchens, they eat rather simply when they’re off duty. And even in their professional work, I see them turning away from fussiness, overdecoration, plates laden with incongruous pairings.
The best chefs, the honest ones, arrive at their “market menus” by actually going to a market, or by working with farmers nearby. They pay more than lip service to freshness and seasonality. Partly as a result, fresh vegetables and fruits are getting a bigger share of the public’s attention.
Perhaps the current focus on the health benefits of produce is a factor, but if so, we’ve come a long way from the days when “health food” was too raw, too gassy, too boring. To some extent we can thank both California cuisine and nouvelle cuisine for a growing sophistication in vegetable cookery, but in my view cooks are just going back to an Old World way of eating that was once the way — before the aberration of modern industrial food got a death grip on our gullets. Chef Craig Shelton once told me it was his training in France that led him to open the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, N.J., where he found superior soil. “French cuisine is not all about the sauces,” he explained. “They’re sort of like a finishing stroke. Just a frame doesn’t deliver a Picasso. French cuisine is all about its vegetables.” Shelton was among the first (in 1984) to plant a garden to supply the kitchen.
Looking back on the various restaurant dishes I remember best are ones that might seem like preambles, or “sides.” I remember Chef Dan Barber welcoming diners with tiny glasses of intense vegetable soups — a purée of fennel with Parmesan foam perhaps. (Barber’s New York restaurant Blue Hill was named for his grandparents’ farm in Massachusetts where he first sourced his produce, and his subsequent Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico, N.Y., is supplied by its surrounding farm fields and greenhouses.) Georgetown’s Nora Pouillion seduced patrons with great vegetables for decades, and her two restaurants were even certified organic. Chef Allison Martin at The Burning Tree on Maine’s Mount Desert Island is known for her imaginative fish dishes, but it is the homegrown “crispy kale,” baked in garlic oil and set atop a clam, pignoli and goat cheese appetizer that my husband still raves about.
Creations that prompt a “What’s in this?” rarely stick in our minds that well. I once saw the brilliant Wisconsin chef Odessa Piper address another cook’s chicken the way you would a wayward child. “This is what I call a ‘kitchen sink’ sauce,” she said. “It tastes good, but everything is muddled together.” When I compared it with her own efforts — such as her unforgettable gnocchi with cauliflower and brown butter — I had to agree. At the amazing Al Gato Nero in Turin, Italy, the dish of peppers and onions I was served might sound like two “extras” on a pizza menu, but because they were special Italian heirloom peppers, perfectly sautéed in olive oil, they were memorable.
These are all lessons you can take home with you. Chef Jonathan Benno, once the Chef de Cuisine at Per Se, in New York City, shared his recipe for Sweet Corn Chowder with Tarragon and Applewood Smoked Bacon. It combines puréed corn, whole corn kernels, and milk and cream steeped with the cobs, to impart flavor. It was a triple salute to corn season.
Sometimes it’s what you subtract from a dish that counts. When heirloom tomatoes are arranged on a plate, with all their various colors, it seems a crime against Nature to douse them with a strong vinaigrette. You’d not be able to distinguish their different levels of acidity, the subtleties of their flavors. Once I watched Chef Peter Hoffman, of Savoy Restaurant in New York, picking some of our radishes for a special dinner he was to present nearby in Maine. “What are you going to do with those, Peter?” I asked. “Nothing,” he replied. Later, one appeared on the edge of each plate, firm, crisp and red, trailing its peppery-tasting greenery. All that was needed.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”