The leaves that captured Mr. Weingarten’s imagination were coaxed from the dirt by Larry Tse, farm manager of the 12-acre operation in New York’s Hudson Valley that Dig Inn maintains to supply its 23 restaurants. In partnership with Seedshed, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening seed biodiversity in the Northeast, the farm is growing lettuce varieties bred for heat resistance and for flavor, too. Their experiments don’t involve any high-tech genetic modification, just old-fashioned crossbreeding. But their goal—truly delicious produce—is nothing short of revolutionary.
In the modern era, fruits and vegetables have been bred almost exclusively for yield (which makes sense for farmers paid by the pound) and to transport and store well (which makes sense for retailers). Taste has been mostly an afterthought.
Seedshed’s Kitchen Cultivars program is part of a wave developing new vegetables to please the palates of chefs and consumers. Earlier this year, chef Dan Barber, of the acclaimed Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and Westchester County, N.Y., launched his own seed company, Row 7, with the goal of encouraging chefs to “write recipes from the ground up.”
For years, Mr. Barber sought out heirloom varieties to cultivate on the acres that supply his own restaurants. Though often finicky to grow, they had the distinctive flavors he craved. Then, about a decade ago, he was chatting about the challenges of growing flavorful varieties with Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek. Mr. Mazourek took up the challenge to breed flavor into a new variety. The result was the honeynut: a tubby, mini version of the common butternut squash with a thinner skin, so it doesn’t have to be peeled, and a natural sweetness that intensifies as you cook it.
With Mr. Barber as its evangelist, the honeynut took off. Today, it’s available at many Whole Foods and farmers’ markets around the country. And that was only the beginning. “We need to think of seeds like an Apple iPhone,” said Mr. Barber. “We don’t just introduce new vegetables. We improve on what we’ve done.”
To that end, Row 7, in which Mr. Mazourek is a partner, has introduced a new version of the honeynut, currently dubbed 898. The caramel sweetness is still there, but the plant now produces a better yield and has a slightly thicker skin so it can be stored through the winter.
Breeder-chef collaborations are bearing fruit (literally) on the West Coast too. In 2010, Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, invited a few local chefs to taste a gypsy pepper a breeder was working on. The cooks had thoughts on the flavor but also on how the size, shape and color would work on the plate. “It was then that I realized plant breeders needed to hear this, since they are the decision makers, determining which traits to keep and which to discard,” Mr. Selman said.
‘ We need to think of seeds like an Apple iPhone. ’
The next year, Mr. Selman established the Portland-based Culinary Breeding Network to connect chefs and breeders. Each year, it hosts a Variety Showcase in which chefs pair up with plant breeders to demonstrate the deliciousness of new varieties in tastings open to the public.
Last month, plant breeders and chefs gathered in Manhattan for Variety Showcase NYC. Some 400 hundred people attended, visiting tables featuring varieties such as blue fenugreek, which smells of maple syrup and tastes almost buttery. The menu included an eggplant taco splashed with hot sauce made from the new “Primero Red” chile, and a callaloo-coconut bake featuring the leaf of a new variety of amaranth. Chef Weingarten served variations on his wedge salad—one with a grapefruit “lacquer” and shallots, another with a smoked butter dressing and bread crumbs.
Working in tandem, chefs, breeders and growers hope to show that qualities such as high yield and storeability needn’t come at the cost of flavor. Last fall, the salad chain Sweetgreen began to collect data on the conditions that produce the most flavorful cherry tomatoes. There were 80 variables, from moisture content and soil type to harvest and usage dates. (Contrary to common expectations, tomatoes didn’t taste best right off the vine. If stored correctly, they tasted sweeter five days after harvest.)
This year, Sweetgreen is doing similar tests on the Badger Flame Beet, another new variety bred for flavor. “It’s an investment for us, but we think it’s a competitive advantage” said Nic Jammet, Sweetgreen’s co-founder and co-CEO. “It’s a way to show our customers that when you source a certain way and prioritize where and how something is grown, there’s data to show that it tastes better.”
Honeynut Puree and Crumble Photo: David Chow for The Wall Street Journal
Honeynut Purée and Crumble
ACTIVE TIME: 20 minutes TOTAL TIME: 9½ hours (includes overnight baking) SERVES: 2
Blue Hill chef Dan Barber was integral to developing the sweet, thin-skinned honeynut squash. His radically simple recipe is designed to let its pure flavor shine through.
2 honeynut squashes
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Split honeynuts horizontally and remove seeds. Lay face up on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper. Cover with foil and roast in oven until flesh is soft enough to scoop with a spoon, 45 minutes-1 hour. Remove foil and continue cooking to reduce moisture, 15 minutes more.
2. Scoop all flesh from skins and pass through a fine-mesh sieve. Put puréed squash into a nonstick pan over low-medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly using a spatula until all liquid is cooked out, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt. If not serving immediately, store in an airtight container in refrigerator and sauté to heat before serving.
3. Make the crumble (optional): Heat oven to 200 degrees. Scrape any remaining flesh from cooked honeynut skins, remove stems and arrange skins on a baking sheet. Bake in oven until fully dry, 8 hours. (Alternatively, use a dehydrator.) Break into small pieces and grind to a rough powder in a spice grinder.
4. Serve warm purée with crumble sprinkled on top or absolutely plain.