“I can remember when kale in a salad was outlandish,” says Dave Becker, chef and owner of Juniper in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Certainly, salads have adapted and changed with customers’ changing palates. Gone are the days when an iceberg wedge and the house salad with a special dressing were the only salad options on a menu. Today, chefs are using varied greens, funky dressings, surprising textures, and artistic platings to take salads to new heights.
Chef Nick Ronan of Bisou Restaurant Group in San Francisco makes his salads distinctive by conceptualizing them around three aspects: seasonality, texture, and color. “For example, during tomato season I make fresh heirloom salads; during the winter, I’ll incorporate root vegetables,” he says. “I also like salads to be layered with texture, whether it’s a stripe of vegetable purée on the plate or a sprinkling of crunchy, baked salsify chips on top.”
Root vegetables and vegetable purées may sound like surprising additions to a salad, but Chef Becker says it’s all about balancing flavors and textures of greens with dressings—and that may require some non-traditional ingredients. At his Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, salads are dressed with vinaigrettes made with unusual ingredients, like a Rooibos dressing made with the South African tea of the same name or sumac for the house salad. “People aren’t shying away from these bolder flavors,” he says. Chef Becker also plays with garnishes; one of his salads is topped with a phyllo dough triangle, stuffed with goat cheese.
Both Chefs Becker and Ronan agree guests are willing to experiment with their salads a bit more than before, allowing them to craft these nuanced dishes. Chef Ronan has noticed that guests are especially willing to try new greens they don’t generally find in salads. “Because we have our farm, Napa Kitchen Gardens, we’re able to grow whichever greens we want and experiment with them at our restaurants,” he says. Chef Becker has noticed customers react well to his creations that use greens like kale, collards, and frisée.
Kalettes, a kale-Brussels sprout hybrid that entered the market recently, may be the next green to find its way onto salad plates. “Kalettes are more tender than kale, so they work well in a salad,” says Lisa Friedrich, director of Golden Sun Marketing, the company that launched the product. “Like kale, they are best dressed early and can stand up to dressing for extended periods.”
Chef Becker has enjoyed watching his customers’ palates change, but he still has a soft spot for a classic. “The iceberg wedge is cool,” he muses, “but people love frisée now.”