Seed to Plate Revolution: How Chefs Empower Plant Breeders to Create
Video: Seed to Plate Revolution: How Chefs Empower Plant Breeders to CreateBY: Alex Martin
It doesn’t matter what your job is — an artist, a scientist, a plant breeder… We all pull creativity and inspiration from somewhere. While there might be vastly different inspiration points between an artist and a scientist, plant breeding seems to be a happy medium between the two. Though there’s numerous pieces of data, genes and traits driving a plant variety forward, the drive, creativity and need for a variety doesn’t always have to be scientific — inspiration can come from eating, too.
Especially in the world of vegetable breeding, breeders take inspiration from tasting, cooking and eating their varieties. Sometimes, you need a professional to give you feedback.
Both Irwin Goldman and Michael Mazourek have luck asking professional tasters and eaters — chefs — for feedback during their breeding work. While the two may approach the feedback in different ways, the ultimate goal is the same: creating a new variety that people enjoy the sight of and the taste of.
“[Feedback from chefs] wasn’t systematically brought into our breeding programs until the last decade,” Goldman, professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says, noting that this feedback was thanks in part to Mazourek and Dan Barber, co-founders of Row Seven Seeds, as well as Steve Jones from Washington State University. “Prior to the influence of Dan and Steve, we interacted with chefs in an ad hoc way.”
Goldman says they would ask chefs about the kind of things they were interested in, and whether they were willing to taste some varieties they were breeding. After chefs were brought a little more intentionally to the program, that dialogue shifted and became more open ended.
“We’re actually having an ongoing, regular dialogue with people who spend their life working on preparing dishes and preparing food for others, who have great insight into the culinary properties of food,” he says. “While I can measure something in the lab, it’s also going to be important for me to have a regular interaction with a chef who is used to working with that product in the kitchen.”
For Mazourek, while the lab is getting similar feedback, he looks to get contributions from chefs who consider something other than the flavor most people expect.
As an example, while working with tromboncino squash — a variety growers and chefs were excited to use — Dan Barber suggested checking and cooking the squash variety more like meat by brining and searing it to create a unique flavor. That experiment led to Mazourek checking all his squash varieties in a similar fashion.
“Though moments like those, they showed me what they were doing — and I wanted to know how I could do this better to work in the field and bring them back something,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to understanding what they’re doing for the presentation. What techniques are they applying, and what did they look for in the cultivars that met those? Just getting insight there to make me a better plant breeder — once they share their insight, then I’m going out into my field with a new vision.”
It's important to remember humans don’t just eat with their mouths. They also eat with their eyes.
“Sometimes the focus on flavor is becoming secondary to the way the plant looks — from the colors to the pigments — the consumer preference could be driven more visually rather than the flavor,” Goldman says.
Mazourek says that’s why, in addition to tasting every variety, he works to understand all the different components of a variety. Chefs aren’t just using them for taste — they’re working to use the plant in a new and unique way.
While there’s a lot in the background to working with chefs, Mazourek and Goldman are excited to see the relationship between plant breeders and chefs evolve in the future.
“Today, we’re doing more of what I’d call participatory plant breeding,” Goldman says. “Some of that is with chefs and other culinary professionals, but we’re also doing that in a lot of other ways with farmers. I believe that’s only going to be good for humanity, and that humanity is going to benefit.”
“Chefs are interested in new ingredients. They’re interested in the narratives, the backgrounds, the community and how they can support their local community,” Mazourek says. “There’s a great opportunity where chefs can be this fantastic ally and diversify what we have in the flavors to make local regions unique.”
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