Future of Flavor

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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You’ve probably had enough of kale right about now. Braised kale. Kale pesto. Kale smoothies and Caesars. But just wait; more is coming your way. Adaptive Seeds, an organic seed company in Oregon, is at work breeding three new varieties. At nearly every step of the process, Adaptive Seeds has collaborated with a local chef to taste and select the best varieties.

The process has taken three years so far. Adaptive Seeds’ Andrew Still started out with 15 test varieties. Inviting a chef into the process added a layer of complexity, but it was enlightening. Where Still liked an ultra-curly kale, reminiscent of curly parsley because it looked so different, the chef, Timothy Wastell, cast his vote for a vibrant purplish-red kale with broad, wavy leaves. The color looked great on the plate, and its shape made it easy to strip in the kitchen. “Working with chefs is an exciting new thing because it gets people really interested in plant breeding,” Still says, “which is helpful for plant breeders.”

In a way, this was bound to happen. First, chefs started paying close attention to their ingredients. Next, they got interested in the farms and how farmers were growing things. Connecting with seed breeders is the natural next step because that is where it all begins.

As he often does, Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ chef Dan Barber has led the way. In partnership with the Center’s head farmer Jack Algiere, the pair worked with Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek to develop an intensely flavored squash called the honeynut. On the West Coast, Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, is institutionalizing the process through the Culinary Breeding Network, a first-of-its-kind organization that fosters collaboration among cooks, farmers, plant breeders and seed growers. On October 3, Selman will host the network’s third annual Variety Showcase, which brings together these once-disparate groups to see, taste and judge new varieties of eggplant, peppers, beets, tomatoes and, yes, kale.

Selman says the idea for the network sprouted after she heard again and again from chefs that many ingredients they used in their kitchens lacked great flavor. Her first effort was to set up a tasting of roasting peppers developed by the legendary breeder Frank Morton, and invite local chefs. What surprised her was that the chefs immediately were able to see the culinary possibilities—and drawbacks—of the peppers’ various traits: rounded shoulders, straight walls and small seed banks. “These were things that breeders weren’t really thinking about,” Selman remembered. “That’s when I said, ‘Oh God, I really want to have more of these conversations.’” Within a few years, breeders had collaborated with tasters on  parsley, fruity but mild habanero peppers, earthy sunset-streaked beets and more.

But don’t we have plenty of already-delicious varieties? And aren’t they called heirlooms?

Sure, but culinary breeding isn’t only about flavor. It’s about creating a new class of produce that melds the fantastic flavor of heirlooms with the durability—think disease-resistance or drought-tolerance—of modern varieties. Moreover, in today’s changing climate, building in resilience is essential. Oregon State plant breeder Jim Myers’ mild habanero is a case in point: It offers a new flavor—all the fruit and floral notes of a traditional habanero, but without the blast of heat that eviscerates them on the palate. It is also a hardy variety, bred to fare well in Oregon’s climate and to be ready weeks before their Caribbean cousins arrive at the market. Selman calls them the “heirlooms of tomorrow.”

Indeed, better breeding is slowly becoming a cause. In 2013, Barber held a conference, “Seeds: The Future of Flavor,” at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which attracted a constellation of culinary stars including Gaston Acurio, Ferran Adria, Michel Bras and Daniel Humm. (Mother Jones covered the event; the story’s headline read: “In Which Top Chefs Have Their Minds Blown By Scientists.”) The Cliff Bar Family Foundation has launched an initiative called Seed Matters that trains farmers in organic seed production and sponsors graduate fellowships to encourage students to pursue careers in organic breeding. “This is next-level thinking,” said Jason French, the chef and owner of Nedd Ludd, in Portland. “The fact that we are all standing around the table together is a leap forward.”

French will be one of 26 chefs and 20 breeders at this year’s Variety Showcase, which will be held October 3 in Portland. As usual, each chef will make a dish to show the potential of the new varieties. In past years, Nora Antene, the pastry chef at Portland’s Tusk, has made a mild habanero sherbet, served in a mini buckwheat cone, and a buttermilk mousse topped with a granità made from Macedonian lanceleaf parsley. (She’s still awaiting her assignment for this year’s Showcase.)

“This is what fuels a chef—having all these cool things to work with,” Antene said. “And these breeders are the people who created the amazing products that we’re all obsessed with. It’s amazing to be a part of it.”