Bon Appétit Chefs Help Build a Better Vegetable
“Eat your vegetables” is a dream command — when they’re delicious.
For years, growers have bred for yield, shelf life, and uniformity at the expense of taste, nutrient density, and the environment; seed companies have been swallowed up until just four giant companies control more than 60% of all the world’s seed sales. A new venture called Row 7, created by award-winning chef and sustainability champion Dan Barber, breeder Michael Mazourek, and seedsman Matthew Goldfarb, is breeding new varieties of vegetables, fruits, and greens for flavor and to raise money for plant-breeding public research. Row 7’s Habanada peppers, for example, amp up “the floral sweetness of the famous habanero, minus the burn” and support Cornell University research.
When Dan reached out to Bon Appétit CEO Fedele Bauccio to see if he was willing to help spread the word (and the seeds), the answer was a quick “Yes!” Everyone at Bon Appétit is interested in flavor.
Row 7’s innovative approach enlists chefs to team up with local growers to plant, grow, and serve these new stars. Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, and Alice Waters are among the luminaries who’ve signed on — as have six Bon Appétit chefs. Multiple kinds of vibrant Row 7 vegetables are right now maturing at the company’s partner-farms across the country:
- Oberlin College Director of Operations John Klancar has enlisted Rainbow Farms in Madison, OH, to plant Row 7 Badger Flame beets, Upstate Abundance potatoes, Habanada peppers, Robin’s Koginut squash, Centercut squash, and an as-yet-unnamed experimental melon.
- Musical Instrument Museum Executive Chef Chris Lenza has partnered with Greens on Purpose in Phoenix to grow Habanada peppers and 7082 cucumbers.
- Emory – Oxford Executive Chef Duke Walsh has teamed up with the campus farm in Oxford, GA, to grow Badger Flame beets and with Crystal Organic Farm in Newborn, GA, to grow Habanada peppers.
- Garden Program Manager Sam Wilder is working with Farmscape to grow Badger Flame beets and 7082 cucumbers at San Francisco’s Oracle Park.
- Oracle Culinary Director Tim Hilt is also working with Farmscape to grow Badger Flame beets, 7082 cucumbers, and 898 squash in the Oracle garden in Redwood Shores, CA.
- Manager of Plant Forward and Innovative Products Thom Fox is working with University of San Francisco-owned Star Route Farms in Bolinas, CA, to grow Centercut squash.
“I am excited to introduce new seeds to our community and restaurants,” said Chris, whose farm partner Greens on Purpose planted the seeds on acreage next to an elementary school. “As I was watching the students plant, I was thinking ‘Wow, how cool is this to have students plant seeds that Arizona soil has never seen before, and no one knows the outcome!’ I can’t wait to cook the peppers and cucumbers with them later.”
The Emory – Oxford campus farm just harvested their Badger Flame beets, and Duke and his team “got to taste the beets straight out of the ground. They are sweeter than a normal yellow beet and less earthy.”
Farmer Larry Klco has always embraced new seeds at Rainbow Farms, as well as new practices. “I want to be on the cutting edge of anything that’s out there,” he says. “When I first started, simple things like drip irrigation, planting through black plastic, using ridge agriculture — no one else was doing that back then.”
He and his family grow more than 200 varieties of produce on their 55 acres, and he’s always willing to plant trial seeds, whether potatoes from Michigan State University’s breeding program or special requests for hot peppers from chefs. “These Row 7 ones are about flavor; that’s very important,” Larry acknowledges. “However, just because something has fantastic flavor, it might not be profitable for a grower, because what works in northeast Ohio for me might not work somewhere else.”
Larry tells a story: About 15 years ago he got a cold call from a seed breeder with a slow Southern drawl who offered him 500 free seeds if he’d try out a new orange seedless watermelon: “We’ve been growing it ever since. All the Bon Appétit locations in Cleveland love the Orange Crisp, and we’re one of the few that grow it around here.” He laughs, “So you never know. If we find one that really does well, we hook onto that one.”
“This kind of coselection in the field and kitchen is essential to what we do,” says Charlotte Douglas, Row 7 chief operating officer. “These varieties can’t just be delicious — they have to perform in the field. And the process of improvement never ends. Through chef and farmer feedback, we can identify opportunities for future breeding projects around the country.”