The Root of It All
One of the latest trends in culinary arts is literally rooted in our food ancestory
While currently cultivating a following in creative kitchens nationwide, the root-to-stalk movement is very simply a responsible, economical and practical approach to consumption practiced in American farm kitchens for centuries.
Once considered food waste, the stalks, stems, roots, tips, fronds, and ribs of kitchen produce are being creatively and seasonally incorporated into a wide variety menu items in restaurant and dining operations of all kinds.
“Everyone likes to put a label on this... hoof-to-snout, fin-to-tail, root-to-stalk, farmhouse cuisine, but really it’s about cooking logically,” explains Jacob Saben, sous chef at Publican Restaurant in Chicago. “Cook what is in season, what is locally available, be creative and use as much of it as you can and everyone is happy.”
Sustainability practices and local food sourcing are increasingly important directives among chefs and their environmentally conscious customers. Sourcing food from local farms and ranches ensures a fresh, high-quality bounty but also supports the local economy, and greatly reduces a restaurant’s waste and the often-expansive carbon footprint created by global food storage and transportation. Using all of the plant, or animal, respects all the resources invested in its growth and harvest.
Operators who embrace the movement will eventually reduce overall food cost. Root-to-stalk may be evolving into less of a trend and more of a practical and respectful philosophy that is rooted in the history of food cultivation itself.
“Even in a place like New York where we’re removed from the soil, I see many students interested in where their food comes from, and it all ties into the idea of not wasting food,” explains Sabrina Sexton, program director at the School of Culinary Arts. “We started composting but it’s even better when not a lot has to go into the compost. Ethically it’s good, and a way to maximize profits as well.”
While sustainability and economics are obvious benefits of sustainable kitchen management, the most compelling reason for restaurants to introduce root-to-stalk to customers is taste. While the label may not sound appetizing, root-to-stalk cooking actually enriches standard fare with deep, uncommon flavors and colors.
“I always like to think about creativity and flavor first,” says Tara Duggan, chef, journalist and author of Root to Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable. “Using these other parts of vegetables and fruits gives you new ways of working with the vegetables and uncovers new flavors and textures. For example, the long stalk and fronds from fennel are sweeter than a fennel bulb and have a stronger anise flavor, so you can use small amounts of them for a kick of flavor. You can try candying the stalks for desserts or cocktails, or using the fronds in place of dill in fish and vegetable dishes.”
Ultimately, root-to-stalk challenges your kitchen to discover new flavors and be more creative in using all parts of the vegetable to make the most of their ingredients. Diners are always looking for something new and different and chefs willing to go back to the farm to discover and present uncommon or robust flavors not found in a grocery store package may inspire their customers. The root-to-stalk item can be the main attraction, or simply an unusual accent to enhance flavor.
Presenting memorable new textures and flavors to seasonal menus also creates the opportunity to differentiate your menu from the competition, attract sustainability-conscious Millennial diners, and develop a relationship with curious foodies. Discarded in most kitchens, broccoli stems and leaves can be chopped and grated into a robust slaw according to Sexton. She also suggests using the delicious greens from turnips, Swiss chard and radishes, not just the stalks. When fava beans are in season in the spring, Publican Restaurant likes to use the whole plant, not just the beans, for pestos and purees.
Chef Saben recommends that chefs and their food buyers do a little research before experimenting with root-to-stem cooking: “The first step is to go to the local farmers' markets; talk to the farmers and vendors, develop a connection with the food and your source, and you will get an entirely new understanding of the many varieties of vegetables available, how to use them and when to use them. Only use what’s in season; some vegetables have a very short season so we like to cherish them and celebrate it on our menu.”
Menus dedicated to locally sourced farm produce are constantly changing with the seasons, according to Sexton. “Micro seasons are trending now; some veggies are only available for two weeks in September, and that means a very different relationship with how you source your products, it’s definitely a trend to change the menu rapidly and put something on as a special for a few days.”
While very little is in season during the winter months, the more advanced practitioner of farmhouse cuisine turns to their pickled produce and preserves to accent cold-weather menus with a taste of a bygone season. “We serve pickled corn in January to bring customers back to the crisp taste of summer,” remarks Saben.