We walked through the packing room corridors towards another cooler. The ten of us attending the weekly marketing meeting at the Chef’s Garden took turns clambering inside the refrigerated closet bundled into our winter coats and hats. The cooler was packed from floor to ceiling with black plastic totes full of gorgeous carrots, yellows, oranges, reds, purples, and pinks. Again there was the sweet smell of a giant farmer’s market in the air, the aromas of earth and soil, a pleasant perfume of fresh air and life. These totes held beautiful bunches of heirloom carrots, their green leafy tops poking out from underneath each other. Totes on an opposing wall hold dozens of newly harvested young beets that looked like boxes of Christmas tree baubles covered in a fine dust. These were also multi-colored with deep hues of purple, golden yellow, pink, and red….a deep, earthy, rich, and burgundy red, the type that pours out onto the cutting board as it stains it with an earthy ink.
The Chef’s Garden is overflowing. A strong fall growing season has led to an abundance of young carrots and beets that were harvested well into early winter, so far into December that the vegetables had time to mature into deeper colors and develop a high sugar content, leading to an incredible concentrated flavor like no other carrots or beets on earth. You can smell the sugars in the air, hovering among the thousands of pounds of vegetables.
Moving this much product is a challenge, a challenge that requires the choreographed efforts of many team members working as a unified front. The marketing department is aware of this and are gearing up for the pre-Christmas push, one of the busiest times of year for restaurants and therefor also the busiest time of year for the farm.
From the moment the vegetables leave the soil here, they require a very specific amount of care before they reach a chef’s kitchen. Chefs know us for a consistently delicious and beautiful that we deliver every day. The wheels are always moving at the Chef’s Garden, and someone somewhere on the farm at every moment of the day is caring to our produce to make sure there is never a delay in getting our vegetables into the hands of the chefs at some of the best restaurants in the world.
While having this much of an abundance of product can be viewed as a challenge or a misstep, Farmer Lee Jones looks at it quite differently. Sure we have an excess of carrots, but they are the best carrots in the world! Let’s take the time to inspire our customers with possibilities and give them a superior product! This year these root vegetables are better than last. In 2013 Ohio suffered one of the worst winters in recorded history with unseen amounts of snow and ice. We are fortunate this year to have a late snow season and the result is a product that only comes once in a very long while. Farmer Lee directs the meeting with enthusiasm and pride, and the team sets out to move the vegetables before the end of the holiday season.
The task handed to the Culinary Vegetable Institute, the kitchen and event center attached to the farm at the Chef’s Garden, was to assist in marketing the excess by preparing and photographing some new and exciting dishes that highlighted our young carrots and beets. Our focus is to communicate new ideas, new techniques, and new methods for elevating our vegetables past just delicious. In the case of making a marketing tool, we have to utilize a different skill set than one we would normally use for making food for diners. Setting up a dish for food photography is a commonplace task in the work of a skilled chef, and in the hands of Chef Jamie Simpson, Executive Chef Liaison at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, it is perhaps one of the most important skills that he has in his set, and certainly one of the skills he is known most for. The delicate art of plating.
Jamie understands that food prepared for a photo shoot not only has to look good, but it has to draw the observer in to “taste” the food in their head. The old adage claims that “people eat with their eyes first,” implies that a well plated dish is a treasure in and of itself and that diners can “taste” food before it even reaches the tongue. This is why chefs use techniques and methods that create striking visual effects with food. If it is done well, really well, it is an absolute marvel to experience. In the arena of food photography, the chef must remember that every component in a dish is fighting to be noticed and coveted, that each ingredient has to jump from the page and into the minds of the viewer to demand admiration and attention.
Jamie’s job is to highlight the products grown at The Chef’s Garden in a new and creative way without losing sight of what the product is in it’s natural form. Imagine a beautiful bunch of carrots, freshly rinsed and firm, an enticing shade of sunset orange. There are dozens of preparations for making that carrot delicious: roasted, sauteed, braised, boiled, mashed, juiced…we could
go on and on. But which of these makes the carrot the most appealing visually? Blitzing it into a puree or a soup or a sauce may highlight the color and look incredible and delicious on a stark white plate, but what about the carrot in its original and most beautiful form? Taking a picture of the plain vegetable in this respect seems pedantic and textbook. The true art here lives at an equal distance between these two points and a chef’s ability to work there comfortably. Jamie Simpson shines in this environment. He was born to do this work. He has an ability and a raw talent at making the ordinary transition into the extraordinary. Today he tackles this by making a carrot soup, pureed until heavenly smooth and poured into a carrot shaped mold lined with a carrot gel that hardens like
ice. This is placed atop a salad of caramelized carrot shavings browned to look like a neat pile of freshly unearthed soil. When the “carrot” is gently nudged with a spoon it breaks like the yolk of a soft boiled egg and the delicious soup pours out into a sweet and succulent pool over the carrot “soil”. The flash goes off, the image is captured, and it’s perfect for highlighting the product. It is innovative, modern, and disciplined. This is cooking at its highest level, a master at the canvas, a conductor at the podium. The kitchen team is proud, the marketing team loves the image, and we all move on to the next project.
This is certainly not to say that there are not failures in the kitchen at the Culinary Vegetable Institute. As a test kitchen, there are a fair share of misfires and close-but-not-close-enough moments. The dry erase board that we share ideas and information on hovers over the work and prep area of the kitchen, constantly overflowing with equations and ratios, ingredient lists, left-handed math and question marks, many, many, question marks. It is purposefully a try and fail kitchen, and that is easy to forget when you are working with chefs that are at the top of their game. My friend and mentor Ülfet Ralph, Chef de Cuisine at the CVI, consoled me one day after a failed attempt at a smoked sourdough ciabatta. She has a way of instantly pulling you from the swamps with a warm bit of advice, a way of peeling off all of the excess un-usables from a situation and pulling out of them a beautiful core. She said that the point of working and learning at the CVI is that I am afforded a safe haven for failure in a world class kitchen, that all of the processes here, whether successful (ciabatta!) or flat and un-risen (my ciabatta), are learning experiences that I should be ok with failing at. I am learning humility amongst friends. “Learn, adapt, and move on,” she says, smiling at the stove with five burners full of pots and pans in different states of process, “Where else in the world would you be able to do this?”
So here we are, living and working in a place where we are allowed to fail, encouraged, even. Handed the opportunity. We work as a team, we succeed as a team, we fail as a team, and most importantly, we LEARN as a team. We pick each other up and face the next step together.
Written by Alan Leizerman, intern at The Culinary Vegetable Institute