Behind the Greens: Inspirational Ingredients
Six pioneering, plant-obsessed chefs on the ingredients that inspire them
City Grocery, Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast, Snackbar; Oxford, MS
Give anybody a good rack of lamb, and even a half-ass can drizzle some sweet stuff on it and make it taste good. But a plain stalk of celery is daunting to a lot of cooks, even though it’s insanely easy to make something delicious out of it. Five or six years ago, I was throwing together a dish as part of a cooking competition. I was given crabmeat and celery, but not much more. Now, I’ve always been the guy who eats celery leaves instead of throwing them away. That’s a snack for me. I mean, as a kid, I’d gnaw on cabbage cores while my mom made coleslaw. So I thought, Why not use the leaves? I made a salad with crab, olive oil, apple, and celery leaves. And I won. And that was the moment I realized, Holy s**t, we’ve been throwing celery leaves away forever and they make a great flavor enhancer. Or a garnish. Or a bite in a salad. I love turning other people’s garbage into delicious food.
WHITE ACRE PEAS
Poole’s Downtown Diner, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Fox Liquor Bar, Chuck’s; Raleigh, NC
One of my most transcendent vegetable memories to date is the discovery of our beloved White Acre pea, which grows here in North Carolina. It’s a delicate creamer pea, both sweet and buttery in flavor. It’s traditional in the South to cook beans and peas with bacon, ham hock, or some expression of salted pork. While this flavor is lovely and quite complementary, it has a tendency to cover up some of the subtler notes that I love most in peas, and specifically in the liquor they produce. The cooking liquid from the White Acre pea is sweet and earthy and has inspired me to never cook my peas with meat. I find them best at room temperature with minced shallot, lemon zest, olive oil, and cracked pepper. My love for this little pea is so great that I purchased two full-size freezers for my garage that are dedicated to storing about five hundred pounds of these delicious fresh peas so that we don’t have to spend the cold months without them.
Hot and Hot Fish Club; Birmingham, AL
My love for tomatoes started early. My father was an avid gardener, and my mother, who was a great cook, insisted on a vegetable garden, where she grew the most beautiful tomatoes. I was enamored with them. Unlike most other fruits and vegetables, tomatoes have their own unique smell, right down to the plant itself. When you touch it or bump into it, you pick it up. I have visceral memories of the smell of the plant on my hands from picking cherry tomatoes right off the vine. My mother cooked them all kinds of ways, but my favorite preparation was her succotash—onions, tomatoes, okra, lots of vegetables, all stewed together. The ritual of picking tomatoes and then hanging out around her apron strings while she cooked them was very special to me. The one thing I didn’t like about the dish, though, was that it was hot, a bit of a gut bomb really. It weighed heavy and wasn’t a comfortable meal (even though I ate plenty of it). So later, as a chef, I wanted to find a way to preserve the flavors of the dish I loved and that held such great memories for me, but to do it at room temperature. And that’s how the Hot and Hot Tomato Salad came to be. It’s a dish that defines our summertime thinking at the restaurant, and it’s amazing to see it resonating with people the way that succotash did with me. That’s the magic and hope of great food.