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10 takeaways on plating produce

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For many years, health advocates have been on restaurants’ backs to put vegetables in the center of the plate and make protein the garnish. But few have listened. Perhaps it's the fear that customers expect a big slab of meat to feel they are getting their money's worth. Besides, only 3 percent of Americans are vegetarians, so who's going to eat all those veg-centric dishes?

The Produce Marketing Association set out to disprove the naysayers at its annual PMA Foodservice Conference in Monterey, Calif., which ended on Sunday. Around the conference theme "Innovate the Plate," presenters demonstrated to the audience of distributors, growers, chefs and chain purchasing directors that the time is now to give vegetables (and fruits) star treatment. Here's how to get on board—and get customers to buy in.

1. Get aggressive with cooking techniques

Chefs are using high-heat techniques, traditionally applied to proteins, on vegetables and fruits, said Gerry Ludwig, corporate consulting chef for Gordon Food Service. Grilling peaches on a plancha, roasting whole eggplant on a rotisserie, charring fennel on a wood-fired grill and poaching root vegetables in rich chicken broth are real-life examples that Ludwig provided. ABS (anything but steaming), he stressed.

2. Add a condiment

Agrodolce, which means “sweet-sour” in Italian, is the vegetable condiment of the moment, said celeb chef-restaurateur Jet Tila, who presented in tandem with Ludwig. The vinegar-sugar reduction ramps up without masking the flavor of humble dishes such as roasted cabbage with pine nuts, as served at Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles.

3. Take an anti-vegetarian stance

Veg-centric does not mean meatless, said Ludwig. Incorporate bits of protein such as anchovies, prosciutto and pork belly into vegetable dishes to appeal to meat eaters and intensify umami. At Sohm in New York City, the chef crisps chicken skin and grinds it with salt to sprinkle over roasted cauliflower; Cadet in L.A. serves oven-roasted, smoked beets with maple-bourbon bacon.

4. Root-to-stem is the new nose-to-tail

Hugh Acheson, owner of four restaurants in Georgia and a regular judge on Bravo’s Top Chef, urged the growers and shippers in the crowd not to trim the broccoli, carrots and other vegetables they send to restaurants. “We want all of it and we will find ways to use it,” he said. Ludwig and Tila pointed to several restaurants that are reducing waste and increasing profitability by “getting trimmings out of the compost bin and onto the plate”—serving up impressive dishes in the process. At Chalk Point Kitchen in New York City, Chef Joe Isidori gets 100 percent yield from broccoli by charring the florets, pickling the stems and making a sauce from the smaller branches and leaves.

5. Ditch the side-dish category

Restaurants tend to list a small number of routine side dishes and usually relegate that list to the bottom of the menu. Tila and Ludwig pointed to operators who make a bigger deal out of vegetable items, moving them into extensive menu sections with labels such as Verdure (at Via Carota), Vegetables to Share (at Chalk Point Kitchen) and simply Vegetables (Little Park and Gjelina). The items are positioned in the middle of the menu with price tags ranging from $9 to $16.
6. Load up the plate. At his restaurant The National in Athens, Ga., Acheson offers 10 to 12 different fresh produce items on his entrée Vegetable Plate, which sells for $20. It might include preps like beets with dill and buttermilk sauce, zucchini fritters with yogurt and harissa and honey roasted carrots with tahini and mint. “I don’t skimp and it’s not an afterthought,” he said.  

7. Tell a story

To play up produce and increase orders, Acheson encouraged the operators to offer a color commentary of sorts with the fruits and vegetables they serve—either on the menu or through server education. Talk about the different varietals of tomatoes and peaches, for example. Highlight the farmer; how and where the produce was grown. Offer details about the flavor profile of more esoteric varieties. “Giving guests a sense of place is a more important selling point than boasting about local, organic or seasonal,” Acheson claimed.

8. Look toward Asia

See what they’re selling in Asian groceries and serving in Korean, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants for ideas on expanding produce on the menu. These cuisines are inherently veg-centric, said Tila, and can provide ideas to differentiate your offerings with flavors that consumers crave.

9. Move pickling to the next level

To supply his four restaurants, Acheson employs a full-time pickler/preserver at a $38,000 annual salary, he told attendees. The guy pickles, preserves and ferments seasonal bounty and “seconds” into signature condiments.

10. Work with growers to plant what you want

Robert Verloop, a California fruit grower and processor and conference emcee, recommended that operators partner with producers to spec crops that will put more variety and excitement on the plate. Chefs who want a certain fruit varietal or a wild green unearthed by a forager should team up with a grower that can make it happen on a mass scale. Verloop assured the audience that this is a realistic expectation.

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