Chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, NYThe Washington Post/Getty Images
These chefs are taking the farm-to-table trend to a whole new level.
Instead of just buying fresh fruits and vegetables straight from the nearest farm, a growing group of top chefs are also raising their own produce with seeds developed specifically for taste — often with the input of their fellow chefs.
Think potatoes so creamy they don’t need butter, and butternut squash so sweet it doesn’t need sugar. The seed trend is based on the premise that chefs can grow produce more nutritious and delicious than anything they can get from the grocery store — or even the local farmer’s market.
It all starts at Row 7 Seed Company, co-founded by chef Dan Barber of the iconic Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, NY, and Blue Hill in Manhattan.
Row 7 sells Habanada peppers that promise all the sweet flavor of a habanero minus the burn — and Beauregarde snow peas, a purple pea that carries the same antioxidants found in blueberries.
Chef Dan Kluger of Loring Place in the West Village has used Row 7 veggies — like squash so sweet he put it into a brunch Danish.
“I love the seeds,” Kluger told Side Dish.
Chef George Mendes of Portuguese hot spot Aldea in the Flatiron District has planted Row 7’s Habanada pepper, as well as their Badger Flame beet — a yellow beet that promises sweetness without the flavor of dirt.
“This produce is more flavorful and nutritious,” Mendes said of his crops, which he started planting with heat lamps before transplanting them outside.
Other chefs who have participated in the seed experiment include Thomas Keller of Per Se, Grant Achatz of The Aviary and the famous Jean-Georges Vongerichten, according to the Web site for Row 7, which Barber co-founded last year with Michael Mazourek, an associate professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, and Matthew Goldfarb, an organic seed grower.
“Chefs dictate what we eat. They are the arbiters of taste. They set the trends and change the way we think about food,” a source said of the business model.
For a tailor-made product, it’s not expensive: The Badger Flame beets, for example, cost $3.50 for 100 seeds, while the Habanada peppers cost $3.50 for 20.
But unlike work on other products, growing seeds is not instantaneous. Anyone who has an idea for an amazing flavor — say, tomatoes that taste like the ones from Italy — can put in a request. But it could take years for that seed to be ready because development comes through a natural cross-breeding process conducted by seed breeders — not scientists in lab coats.
Plus, all new seeds are shared with anyone who wants them, and edited according to feedback. This means the products are constantly evolving.
The Beauregarde snow peas, for example, were “a little bitter” last year, said Kluger. Then this year, the crop blew him away. “They were incredible. The flavor and texture was perfect. We had them at Blue Hill and my kids were devouring them,” Kluger said.
The seed for Row 7 was planted eight years ago when Barber asked Mazourek if it was possible to create a sweeter squash. It was the first time anyone had asked Mazourek to create a seed based on flavor — instead of for shelf life or attractiveness, the men said on their website.
Early investors include Richard Schnieders, the former CEO of Sysco, the food service giant.
Marion Nestle, an author and food/nutrition/public health expert at New York University, says selecting seeds for taste — as opposed to transportation and storage — is part of the larger foodie trend.
“Farmers’ markets have taught the public to expect better-tasting produce,” Nestle said.