If customers at Rex 1516 in Philadelphia are curious about where their produce comes from, they need only step into the restaurant’s backyard.

Executive chef Regis Jansen planted a garden in the back and filled it with seeds “to grow my own heirloom tomatoes and a lot of spring vegetables that I want to utilize in small portions for specials,” he says.

Chefs and experts agree that this spring’s trend is not necessarily a certain ingredient or cuisine, but instead is simplicity—growing and cooking everything in house, even vegetables and bread.

“A lot of people lately are just trying to go back to the old style of cooking and serving food,” Jansen says. “You know, growing it yourself and presenting that as one of the leg-ups in your restaurant, to say, ‘We didn’t buy this; we made this, we grew this.’”

He notes that his kitchen employs both a baker and pastry chef, so that even the bread is made inside the kitchen.

Banks White is the executive chef at FIVE, a restaurant in downtown Berkeley, California. He frequents the local farmer’s market at least once a week, and says the produce he buys there writes the menu itself.

“My process is, I typically go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays and I’m talking to the growers and the purveyors,” he says. “[They] constantly are giving me the inside track on what’s coming out early, what’s really good right now, what to stay away from.”

David Bakke, editor of Money Crashers Personal Finance with managerial experience in the restaurant industry, says a restaurant focused on fresh needs to show it.

“A restaurant can claim that its food items are made fresh every day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that consumers are getting lettuce that was cut that morning,” he explains. “Restaurants that are truly dedicated to quality empty all prepped veggie containers and start off 100 percent fresh every day.”

With warmer weather approaching, Bakke says consumers look for lighter, less-filling dishes.

Jansen plans to satisfy his clients’ cravings with seafood varieties, from oysters and white fish to red snappers. For White, the focus is on the freshest vegetable.

“Right off the bat, it’s asparagus,” White says. “I think it’s the first spring ingredient that everybody rallies around and supports and looks forward to.”

Other early spring contenders are onions and green garlic, while late spring culprits, such as fava beans, English peas, and ramps, will poke their heads out in a few weeks’ time.

One of White’s recent specials at FIVE is a California halibut with caramelized purple cauliflower, roasted pepper agrodolce (an Italian sweet-and-sour relish), pea tendrils, and vadouvan emulsion (a masala curry).

“I went to the farmer’s market and I didn’t even have halibut or agrodolce in mind,” White says. “But when I saw the purple cauliflower, I brought it back to the restaurant and my team and I looked at it and said, what would this really go well with?”

As consumers respond favorably to the produce-driven mindset, chefs are rethinking their strategies.

“It’s almost like I think about the produce or the ingredients first, before I think about the protein,” White says. “It’s these great spring surprises that come to us or that we find that really write the menu, as opposed to the other way around.”

By Sonya Chudgar

Chef Profiles, Health & Nutrition, Industry News