Apples, Oranges and Chanel? Designer Produce

25 November 2008 By Kelly Sanford

Once upon a time when a chef ordered carrots from a purveyor, he or she simply ordered…carrots. Maybe there was distinction between funky-shaped “juicing carrots” and “cooking carrots” but for the most part, they just ordered carrots.

Yet in the last decade or so, produce has undergone something of a revolution. Now when a chef orders carrots, they have distinctions like “Dragon” versus “Orange Rounds” and color varieties such as pink, white, yellow and purple – and then there’s a whole slew of size variations and stem options.

And in a frenzied attempt to bring gourmands morsels that will wow the eye, please the palate and sound exciting on a menu, many varieties of produce are picked at various stages of development. Not long ago, sprouts came in essentially two varieties: bean and alfalfa. Now just about everything is available as a “sprout” (though currently marketed under more ostentatious monikers like “micro,” “sproutling” and “baby”).

This relatively recent diversity is not a bad thing, but it's certainly a lot to keep up with in the trendy arena of culinary showmanship.

Bio-engineered fruits and vegetables have become staples in the marketplace and have literally doubled and quadrupled the varieties of certain fruits and vegetables. Much of the produce in the supermarkets across the globe has been bio-diversified to some degree and is often picked green and forced to ripen in a gas chamber in order to prolong shelf-life for the modern market. Meanwhile, truly seasonal “heirloom” varieties of produce have reached the brink of extinction.

Desperate to find flavor in today’s food crops, chefs are willing to pay a premium for designer produce and have expectations that match their willingness to spend.

“We don’t want to serve our guests mealy tomatoes that were picked green and gassed to turn red,” says Chef Daniel Barrone, “I want to serve my guest tomatoes like the ones my grandmother grew in Italy. They grew in the dirt and the sun and the taste was incredible. So finding a farm that can get us that kind of food is really important. Our guests want the best of everything, and a good chef will find it.”

The result has been a revival for farmers’ markets and a return to old-school farming practices by farms such as The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio. These boutique farms are able to produce fruits and vegetables that are safer than organic and boast intense and earthy flavors.

“The key to making them available to yacht chefs and chefs around the globe is that farms like The Chef’s Garden do not harvest anything until it is ordered and then ship it direct to the client, so the chef has the full two weeks of shelf life,” says James Klapdohr, executive chef of The Culinary Vegetable Institute.

“Yes, it costs more than the supermarket,” concedes Chef Barrone, “but it will be memorable and worth it.”

Chefs wanting to rediscover old-world heirloom and ultra-fresh produce should seek out regional farmers’ markets versus visiting the supermarket where possible. They also can order from commercial sustainable farms like The Chef’s Garden, which is an exclusive purveyor to The Grateful Palate in Fort Lauderdale.