Forecasting the Next Food Fad: Are ‘Kohlrabi’ and ‘Yacon’ the Next Kale?
Why do some foods start popping up everywhere from markets to restaurant menus? Here’s a glimpse into the making of an ‘It’ vegetable. Plus, recipes for the must-haves of the moment.
The Wall Street Journal by Karen Stabiner July 27, 2017
YOU MAY NOT have heard of a yacon, but pay attention. This Andean tuber could be big.
If you’ve ever eaten a kiwi or a kale salad, you’ve already surfed a produce wave. But there’s a new urgency to fruit and vegetable trends as a tight restaurant economy makes it more important than ever for a chef to stand out. Savvy customers want produce that’s intriguing, surprising, delicious and, if possible, wildly nutritious—not only at restaurants and stores but on our doorsteps, as grocery-delivery services such as FreshDirect expand the market.
On the local level, veteran southern California farmer Alex Weiser plants what he calls “development crops”—seasonal items that a chef might audition on his menu—to see if they warrant more acreage. On a much larger scale, companies like Los Angeles-based Frieda’s Specialty Produce scour the globe for fruits and vegetables that might come from nearby or from South America, because supermarket clients want variety year-round.
Karen Caplan, CEO of the 55-year-old Frieda’s, has never seen anything like the current scramble for marquee produce.
“Information travels at the speed of light” in the Instagram era, she said. The next big thing gets a lot more exposure, and faces a lot more competition.
The new star could be a tomato called the datterino—Italian for little date—that Pennsylvania farmer Chris Field brings to New York’s Union Square Greenmarket every Friday. “We can’t grow enough,” said Mr. Field, considering a near-empty crate only an hour after the market opened.
Or it could be a happy fluke like the Stokes purple sweet potato that Frieda’s distributes. Its debut happened to coincide with the popular Blue Zone diet; though the regimen promotes the health benefits of a different variety of purple sweet potato, the Stokes benefited from the association.
On a postcard Sunday morning in Santa Monica, Calif., Mr. Weiser presides over his family’s stand at the farmers’ market in a well-worn “Life is Good” T-shirt. Conversations with customers invigorate him. Chatting with a couple of chefs, he learned about the yacon, the aforementioned Andean tuber, which he now cultivates alongside other newcomers at his farm at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains. The versatile vegetable “tastes like a combo of celery and apple raw, and cooked, it gets sweeter,” said Mr. Weiser. He’ll give the early yield to the chefs who told him about it, to see what kind of response they get from diners.
Collaborations between chefs and small farmers sometimes hinge on matching produce to the appropriate microclimate. Evan Funke, chef-partner at Felix Trattoria in Venice, Calif., handed out chicory seeds to Mr. Weiser and a few other farmers, to make sure he has a constant supply of the bitter green as the seasons shift. He’s a one-man chicory trendmaker: When the crops hit, there will be enough not only for him but for other local chefs.
The same synergy informs the East Coast market. Greg Vernick, who won this year’s James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region, said that his menu at Vernick Food & Drink in Philadelphia emphasizes vegetables because so many people, himself included, are eating more of them (or feel they should be). He’s always on the hunt for novel produce.
The back-and-forth among farmer, chef and market customer means more variety, and more candidates for fame. When Mr. Thao first came to the Santa Monica market 21 years ago he had about 15 crops to sell, including Chinese long beans, most of which went back on the truck at the end of the day. Now he grows about 300 produce varieties, and a bigger harvest of Chinese long beans frequently sells out in the first hour.
‘The back-and-forth among farmer, chef and market customer means more variety.’
None of which was sufficient to make a shopper take a chance on an $80 whole jackfruit. Ms. Caplan said shoppers will spend about five dollars to try a new fruit or vegetable. So Frieda’s created a label to introduce the new item and got retailers to sell cut segments for a fraction of an entire jackfruit’s cost.
“Peas and favas don’t excite me the way they used to,” she said. Vegetables have moved to the center of the plate, from the cauliflower steaks that have been so popular in recent years to Ms. Robbins’s own hearty, boldly flavored broccolini salad (recipe at right). “I like a vegetable you can eat as a meal, and people want that,” she said. “That’s the trend.”