Going Far Afield with Jamie Simpson

I was invited to bring a guest to spend the better part of 24 hours at the Culinary Vegetable Institute, and it’s no exaggeration to say we won’t look at vegetables the same way again.

Crossing the Black River, you see the landscape transform. Along State Route 2, as you near Milan, you can feel the closeness of the lake to the north, and as residential communities give way to rural hamlets, there’s no mistaking that you’re in ag country. Less than an hour from Cleveland, and you’re surrounded by nurseries and fields of corn and soybeans. You exit at Route 13 in Huron and there, a few miles south and tucked behind a blossoming field and a sign encouraging passersbys to “Please, Pick the Flowers,” you’ll find a place unlike any in the area. Unlike any place anywhere, really.

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Turning off the paved road and driving past the flowers, you’ll see another sign informing you that the area you’re entering is by invitation only. You’ll notice beehives tucked away among evergreens, asparagus fields bordered by woodlands, and meandering trails for forest foraging. There are rows of rhubarb, displaying stems whose violet hue would seem more appropriate in a vineyard. And flowers—in the ground, in pots, and in hoop houses—flowers everywhere.

The road ends at a building reminiscent of a log cabin. If the fields you just drove through serve as the heart of the Culinary Vegetable Institute, often called simply CVI, this building is the brain.

Master Gardeners

For the last two years, CVI has been shepherded by Jamie Simpson, a young chef who cut his teeth cooking around the world. His journey here started when he used produce from Chef’s Garden, CVI’s parent company, at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK. The quality of the produce caught Jamie’s attention, courting commenced, and the relationship was established. Jamie moved to Milan, Ohio, to run the kitchen.

To understand CVI, you first need to understand Chef ’s Garden, the innovative farm, with the overall-clad, red bowtie-wearing Farmer Lee Jones at the helm, that grows the highest quality and bespoke produce for the most discriminating and progressive restaurants in the world.

A chef in Peru wants cardamom leaves—Chef’s Garden will FedEx perfect cardamom leaves in a plastic clamshell container. A chef in California wants Kinome, the palate-numbing leaves of a Japanese shrub? FedEx a clamshell. Need oyster leaf, a plant whose leaves that taste exactly—exactly—like a briny oyster? No problem—clamshell.

Chef’s Garden has mastered growing, then shipping perfect and often otherwise unavailable produce. CVI functions as Chef ’s Garden’s R & D lab, outreach department, and hospitality wing, combined on one campus and under the stewardship of one chef.

It’s also a restaurant, kind of. And that same innovation that Chef ’s Garden brings to growing and shipping, Jamie and CVI bring to the kitchen.

No Ordinary Kitchen

We arrived in front of the log cabin structure around 5:30pm and made our way into the kitchen. Prep was underway for a private dining group that was coming the following night. On the walls were notes from a project involving the creation of dishes from foods with complementary, volatile organic compounds. Think fenugreek, pork, and blueberry. Or, perhaps a bit more of a challenge—shrimp, chocolate, matcha, and apple. In the fridge were some leftover proteins from the previous evening’s workshop—a continuing chefs education class on sous vide cooking co-hosted by Richard Rosendale, the certified master chef once in charge of feeding guests at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia.

Jamie’s kitchen staff was preparing ingredients both common and esoteric. Mariel and Dario, a couple in life and in their nomadic stages in kitchens throughout the world, were working with a thin film of golden beet gelée while browning butter to add to bean puree. Courtney, the intern, was peeling perfect beets.

The scene was part science lab and part temple devoted to the worship of vegetables. The tools are those typical of the modern kitchen—an immersion circulator and vacuum sealer for sous vide cooking, Searzall for searing, dehydrator, a rational steam oven, a Vitamix, some iSi whipping containers for foams and the like, and a pantry with various hydrocolloids to provide a range of textures for purees and juices.

The larder held reimagined, age-old recipes next to modern ones. There were lacto-fermented baby turnips, powdered squash blossoms, cherry vinegar, and chicharrón-like crisps made from peas. These creations were alongside edible begonia flowers that could stand in for slices of green apple, and fillet beans so dainty it’s hard to imagine the size of the hands that picked them.

Throughout the evening, conversations with Jamie often came back to the concept of readiness. When was something ready? Were the four Mangalitsa pigs Jamie was raising next to his onsite residence ready at their current weight? Were strawberries, picked green and fermented, ready? Was seemingly past-its-prime asparagus, ferned out and ignored in the field, ready?

Knowing what was ready, or, better still, how to highlight ingredients at stages commonly overlooked, is a continuing exploration that produces some of the most scintillating food at CVI.

By applying a fluid approach to readiness, Jamie and his staff unlock a new dimension in flavors while extending the productive cycle of a plant’s life—taking an herb or vegetable, for example, from the moment the seed is planted through to the period when it bears seeds of its own.

And maybe that concept isn’t so novel. Using parsnip seeds, for example, came from Jamie’s time in CVI’s library, where he found that seeds and leaves had been the primary reason parsnips were grown in the first place. The switch-over to cultivation for their roots is a relatively recent phenomenon.

A Tasting of the Season

It was approaching 7:30, and while the crew wouldn’t eat dinner for several more hours, they insisted on giving us a few plates of food that exemplified their point of view. What followed was an onslaught of creative, and more important, delicious, small plates highlighting the finest qualities of carefully selected produce and proteins, all presented with a chef ’s palate, an artist’s touch, and a craftsman’s sensibility.

First up, beets:

A small poached red beet coated in beet juice gel, served with beet ice cream, the golden beet gelée, tiny beet leaves, cotton candy-like spun beet juice, olive oil, and a smear of goat cheese. It looked like modern art. It tasted like a beet and goat cheese salad wished it could.

Turnips followed:

Young, long, and skinny turnips, lightly sautéed, and then charred with a blowtorch. Also those fermented baby turnips from earlier, which looked like sushi bar ginger and tasted like sauerkraut, and cooked diced turnips reminiscent of Lilliputian breakfast potatoes. And pickled mustard seeds, Dijon mustard, and Japanese mayonnaise shared the garnish role with a hefty sliver of butter-basted sous vide–poached chicken breast, the breast’s skin crisped up separately and served in shards along with the turnips.

Then came squash:

A blossom fried tempura style, pale, and concealing a soft poached egg within. It sat atop a loose arugula pesto and surrounded by sautéed pieces of the smallest squash imaginable. Included in the sauté were stamens from the male blossoms. For this dish the garnish was a vibrant and technicolor squash blossom powder.

Carrots were next:

Compressed and pickled shavings, fried chips, cinnamon-inflected ice cream, sea samphire, and carrot greens, over a crème fraîche base. A bite combining all the elements produced the same sensation that you get when you bite into a freshly dug carrot, only amplified about 1,000%.

And lastly, pork and beans:

When chefs like Rosendale pass through CVI, they have access to the world-class kitchen and produce. What they leave behind for Jamie and his staff are techniques. And in this case also a vacuum bag containing a perfect rectangle of pork belly, cooked and chilled under pressure to create something like a porcine mille-feuille, with layers of impossibly compact yet custardy pork alternating with seams of mild fat that had the texture of warm butter. The beans came in many forms—white beans pureed with brown butter, the tiny fillet beans, a bright green pea emulsion, dehydrated and fried green pea chicharrón, and lightly dressed and simply presented shucked snow peas.

A Taste of Your Own

Sound good? Well, you’ll probably never get to try any of those dishes.

It’s unlikely anyone else will either. Because that’s how it works at CVI—the food is in a constant state of evolution. The ingredients, whether grown at Chef’s Garden or brought in from like-minded producers, provide Jamie and his staff with ever-changing inspiration. And the revolving cast of guest chefs bring with them new techniques, to be added to Jamie’s repertoire and applied with discretion to the world-class ingredients. The products and tools available to CVI are constantly expanding. Core components, like a perfected beet gel or pea chicharrón, may reappear as the seasons allow, but the complete dishes exist at the intersection of where Jamie and his staff are at any given point in time, and the ingredients available at that moment. Which is all to say, it’s never the same and it keeps getting better.

So how can you eat there?

First you can attend a class. Classes run from a few hours to a few days and cover topics ranging from sous vide cookery to whole animal butchery. The classes target audiences from professional chefs to food enthusiasts, often at the same time. You learn, you eat—everyone’s a winner.

The second way to experience CVI is sign up to attend a dinner. Heading out for a meal is an easy way to get a peek into a world-class experience happening in our backyard. People travel the world for this level of food—for us, it is closer than Cedar Point.

Finally, you can make a reservation for you and a group of friends. This way there are no set hours, menus, or rules. You can take your time enjoying the details of every course—because it’s not a restaurant, no one is trying to turn your table. Booking a private dinner may seem extravagant, but compared to going to Chicago or New York, or even traveling to Pittsburgh, to drive less than an hour for a contemporary meal that combines the best of modern kitchen technique and the finest ingredients in the world is a pretty special opportunity.

It’s easy to take for granted things in our own backyard. But at CVI you’ll find food and an experience on par with the finest in the culinary world. The staff is working 19-hour days developing dishes and perfecting their craft. That monastic dedication shows up on every plate. Frankly, it’s amazing that something like this exists anywhere, much less a few miles west of Cleveland. And if you’re anything like us, you’ll leave with an expanded view of what the plant and animal kingdom have to offer us for a meal.

To get more information about upcoming programs and to make reservations visit CulinaryVegetableInstitute.com or call 419.499.7500.

ROOTS 2015

Taking Action

September 21 & 22

The third annual Roots Conference invites food luminaries from around the globe to come together to discuss the ongoing work they are engaged in to repair our fractured food system. The two-day event will feature presentations, book signings, and culinary activities, all rooted in this year’s theme “Roots 2015: Taking Action.”

The theme reflects the fellowship of individuals, presenters, attendees, and organizers alike, who are committed to taking action and getting things done for the sake of our food system today, and for the betterment of our planet tomorrow.

“Traditionally this event has been popular with food industry attendees, but this year we are encouraging all food enthusiasts—farmers, chefs, academics, food scientists, and general consumers—to unite with the common goal of taking action toward impacting positive change in the food world,” said Farmer Lee Jones.

Presenters will utilize and examine cutting-edge technologies that are being used throughout the world to improve and enhance our food system and explore work currently underway in fields as diverse as science, academia, journalism, agriculture, and gastronomy that aim for real and lasting change.

The goal of the conference is to provide tangible solutions, inspire thought-provoking conversations, exchange crucial information, and forge powerful connections between people from across the globe who are working in their kitchens, fields, laboratories, and offices to improve the health of our food system, uphold traditions, preserve endangered foods, and repair damaged ecosystems.

Tickets are $350: includes breakfast, lunch, and a family-style dinner on Monday night, all seminars, and a tour of the farm. For more information and a full list of participants and seminar topics, visit Chefs-Garden.com/rootsconference.