Making plants a hot item

By Tim Cebula
September 01, 2011
Jeff Lipsky

Something seismic happened in 2010 when an obscure Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, replaced El Bulli in Spain as the "world's best restaurant" in the much-ballyhooed San Pellegrino 50 Best List: Suddenly the focus was off the fantastical engineering of so-called molecular gastronomy; now the most talked-about joint in the world was all about local, foraged foods, a lot of them plants.

Plants are moving center plate and center stage: Plants are hot; plants are cool. Certainly, they're superstars to California Chef Daniel Patterson. While so many American chefs were serving from the nose-to-tail pork trough in the past few years, Patterson was elevating the vegetable to a level seen in few other restaurants in this country. His stellar establishments, Coi, a 2-Michelin-star gem in San Francisco, and the more casual Plum in Oakland, are simply thrilling places at which to eat, serving up unforgettable dishes that challenge the way you think about produce.

Patterson's cooking isn't vegetarian, and that's crucial. He's not pushing an agenda. He just finds cooking with produce more interesting. "Meat has a very narrow band of variation. The differences between breeds of cattle, for example, are going to be infinitesimally smaller than the variations between kinds of sage or mint or whatever." Cooking with plants, he says, is "like painting with way more colors."

Consider the "beet rose," a starter on Coi's 11-course tasting menu: earthy roasted beet sliced and reassembled like a blossoming flower, paired with rose-infused granita and aerated yogurt.

"I loved it because it wasn't like every other beet dish in America," says Chef David Chang of New York's renowned Momofuku restaurants. "It demonstrated Patterson's unique point of view and his ability to execute it."

Patterson's carrots and coffee dish—a predessert course—features carrots roasted on a bed of coffee beans, served up with a touch of finely ground coffee and crème fraîche: The end result, still carrot-y at its soul, is delightfully reminiscent of tiramisu.

Patterson's bona fides include foraging and cooking with Noma Chef René Redzepi for special events in Italy and in Scandinavia. He and his staff hunt down wild edibles like acorns, wood sorrel, sour grass, Angelica root, and Bay-area seaweeds, which allows him to showcase intensely local flavors.

"Roots, bark, leaves, berries, flowers—each plant gives so much," Patterson enthuses about his foraged items. "You get the sense of limitless possibility."