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Microgreens and tiny, intensely flavored herbs introduce texture, taste, and interest to the plate.

By Amelia Levin June 2015

As independent restaurant groups take the country’s food-focused cities by storm, many executive chefs have become culinary managers, overseeing the menu, systems, and team for multiple restaurant concepts. That includes John “Johnnie” Anderson, the former executive chef of Eschelon Experiences’ Mura, who rose to culinary director for the entire Raleigh, North Carolina–based independent restaurant group when he was just 31 years of age.

“It’s been great getting the chance to grow from within the company,” says the Burlington, North Carolina, native, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona. Chef Anderson clocked time in the kitchens at upscale eateries in the Raleigh market including French enclave Margaux’s, Herons at The Umstead Hotel and Spa, and Brier Creek Country Club prior to joining Mura, Eschelon’s first restaurant, a sushi-Japanese concept that opened in 2007 in Raleigh’s revitalized North Hills neighborhood.

The group now has six concepts, each with a very distinctive, elevated menu and a highly skilled head chef. Rather than dictate the dishes for each restaurant, Chef Anderson takes a mentoring role, helping to facilitate brainstorming sessions throughout the group and define the vision of each restaurant without becoming a micromanager.

“One of the best things about our company is that we give all the great chefs we hire [the opportunity] to create their own, creative menus,” says Chef Anderson, who empowers each chef with plenty of autonomy as long as what they plan is grounded in the concept. “The chefs and I talk more about the vision than the actual ingredients. I wouldn’t tell a sculptor what to sculpt, but I might push the artist in the right direction.”

For example, at the recently opened Basan—a contemporary sushi and Japanese restaurant, and Eschelon Experiences’ first location outside Raleigh, in neighboring Durham—Chef Anderson worked with San Francisco master sushi chef Toshio Sakamaki around his particular style.

“We were going for West Coast–style sushi, which is lighter and cleaner and more about the freshness of the food than fried food and cream cheese and soy sauce,” Chef Anderson says. “The further West you go and when you get to Japan, everything is about the fish; there’s none of the fried stuff.”

Chef Anderson, a trained sushi chef himself who formerly headed the hot kitchen side at Mura, brought his ideas for that heartier balance to the menu. This includes playful takes on traditional Japanese dishes in the form of tsukune ramen with chicken meatballs and yuzu aioli; Ishiyake beef, or sliced Black Angus steak cooked tableside on a hot stone; and karaage, a sweet and spicy Japanese-style fried chicken.

For his part, Chef Sakamaki says he appreciated the help from Chef Anderson and the ease of the working relationship. “Johnnie really helped advise me how to create the menu and manage the restaurant,” he says. “If you work in a larger group, you get really great support from other chefs and managers, and it’s a very organized system.”

The pair worked together closely to design and build a new type of sushi restaurant that would make it easier for hot kitchen and sushi chefs to work together when plating. “Most sushi restaurants have a sushi bar and hot kitchen that aren’t connected so there’s little communication between both sides,” Chef Anderson says. “We set up Basan as a rectangle with the sushi bar still out front but backing up to a wide open hot kitchen separated by a table to plate dishes from both sides.”

Chef Anderson’s greatest challenge—in both menu and design—came with the dual openings of Basan and Faire Steak & Seafood within just a few weeks of one another, though this was not on purpose, he notes. Faire opened in October, followed by Basan in January. Construction challenges delayed the opening of Faire, a 6,000-square-foot space with a large kitchen, lounge, dining room, and private-dining enclave.

A play on the French word meaning to take action or to make, the name Faire is also a tribute to the North Carolina State Fair, which has been held annually for more than 150 years and is located just a few miles from the restaurant. Faire was conceptualized to be a chef-driven, modern steakhouse that’s anything but the stuffy, dark “old boy’s club” of years past.

“We wanted to focus more on food from-scratch and make it a nice place where you can feel comfortable coming in for a business meeting or for a casual dinner and drinks,” says Chef Anderson, who worked with Faire head chef Christopher Hill to bring that vision to the menu. “It’s not just about the hunk of meat on the plate; we think about every detail of the menu,” Chef Anderson says. “We have allowed our chefs to be imaginative.”

A classic example is the bread and butter: an eggplant-infused loaf baked fresh, in-house, and served with butter that has been cold-smoked in a combi-oven, which happens to be Anderson’s favorite multi-use equipment as of late.

The beef still takes center-of-the-plate attention at Faire, and for good reason, coming from a local farm on the outskirts of Charlotte. “As far as I know we’re the only restaurant in North Carolina exclusively using this beef,” Chef Anderson says, adding the group has found that their guests increasingly appreciate local sourcing because it keeps dollars closer to home and the local farms bring quality product.

Though he doesn’t want to micromanage Eschelon chefs and their choice of specific ingredients, Chef Anderson does help them find these specialty suppliers and he helps the group achieve economies of scale with the larger food and broadline suppliers. However, the local, smaller suppliers can present challenges when it comes to supply and demand—and Chef Anderson steps in to assist.

“If we get to the point where our volume is too high, we will find a secondary supplier that meets our standards,” Chef Anderson says, adding as an example that the restaurant only uses beef raised humanely without the use of hormones and daily antibiotics.

He also helped the Faire team build their supply of herbs by working with the horticulture department at North Carolina State University to grow microgreens in the restaurant. The micro cilantro, sorrel, fennel, and other sprouting herbs are grown in trays on wire racks outfitted with special lights and set up near the back door of the restaurant to prevent any potential garden pests from entering the main kitchen. All the cooks chip in to help maintain the microgreens, using them for garnishes, salads, pesto, and other sauces.

Chef Hill has rave reviews of working alongside Chef Anderson, noting, “He is the most level-headed chef I have worked with, and he really listens to you and helps guide you to make the right decisions while demanding exceptional results. If he says he will be there to help out, he’s there 15 minutes early.”

Aside from creative direction and kitchen design, a huge part of Chef Anderson’s job revolves around accountability and helping the chefs stay on track with their numbers. After many years of closely monitoring finances and food costing, he has developed cost-monitoring formulas and spreadsheets that help his busy chefs stay on track with menu development, purchasing, and inventory management. The goals are to hit the defined percentages around profit per plate and compare total purchases with in-store inventory to determine more accurately which types of dishes sell and which don’t.

“One of the things that makes a restaurant profitable is knowing where money goes, because profit margins are slim,” Chef Anderson explains.

However, he adds, success starts with finding great chef talent who already have a competent grasp on food costing, menuing, interviewing, and recruiting their own teams. But proper training is the other part of the equation. During openings, Chef Anderson will spend more time at the new restaurant, helping train staff and instill the group’s systems and culture in the new team.

Our culture is defined by our core values—integrity, passion, quality, and innovation—and the culture has two parts, family and a sense of ownership,” he says. “I consider the people I work with and who influence my growth and ideas as my family. If you ask our employees, they will tell you they feel similarly and they genuinely care about each other—as we do about them. The ownership part of it is something we [instill] through training and our bonus system. By being transparent with our financial information, our employees are able to see how they can improve themselves and [impact] aspects of the restaurant.” Move over, kale. Nasturtiums? So last year. Variations of microgreens, or sprouts, and other small greens have become the leafy accent of choice these days. From tiny, intensely flavored herbs like micro cilantro and sorrel to aromatics such as micro lemongrass and Chinese toon, these miniature beauties add new flavors and textures to dishes, coupled with a decorative touch.

“Microgreens were a little misused in earlier days,” says Lee Jones, owner of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, a regular supplier for acclaimed chefs around the world, like Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, and Ferran Adria. “People used them because they were cute, but today that’s not enough. Now, they need to complement and enhance the overall flavor and texture, aside from just the presentation.”

The Chef’s Garden grows 700 different crops spanning 300 acres, 150 of which are grown year-round in greenhouses heated naturally by solar energy and a boiler that burns corn byproduct. It’s in the greenhouses where Jones cultivates his popular microgreens and other small greens, harvesting everything by hand using scissors to preserve their delicate nature.

“What we’ve learned from chefs is that a plant offers something unique to the plate at every single stage of its life,” Jones explains. These stages include micro, with intensely flavored leaves up to an inch; petites, with leaves about 1 to 2 inches; ultra, with 2- to 3-inch leaves; baby, with milder-tasting, 3- to 5-inch leaves; and young, with larger leaves just before the plant hits the flowering stage, at which point it becomes the traditional-size herb or vegetable. At that point, the plant stem and leaves become too bitter to be palatable.

“The goal of a plant is to produce a mature seed,” says Jones. “When you clip it regularly, the plant thinks it hasn’t produced a mature seed so it will continue to grow.” That’s how these smaller, leafy greens come about.

Among his chef customers, multi-colored petite varieties seem to be popular for beautiful, composed salads showing off each individual leaf, while microgreens still reign as the garnish of choice these days. Ultra greens are popular among chefs who are looking for a leaf of a specific size that will work proportionally with the other dish components and not overpower the presentation or flavor.

“Since many chefs don’t have the space or time to grow their own microgreens, we look at ourselves as an extension of their kitchen,” says Jones, who overnights his shipments for maximum freshness. Controlling plants at their various stages, including the microgreens stage, lends itself to a bounty of colors, flavors, and shapes.

Lately, chefs have enjoyed Jones’ Chinese toon, a clover-like microgreen that has been used for centuries by the Chinese for its nutritional and medicinal benefits but has recently sprouted up in the U.S. and Canada for culinary purposes. The plant, which has a dark green stem and several small, individual brighter green leaves, has a very complex, umami flavor that Jones says “tastes like Sunday roast beef or onion.”

At Loews Miami Beach Hotel, Chef Jason Prevatt uses Chinese toon for a garnish on his Peruvian-style scallop and watermelon tiradito, a raw, crudo-like dish. He says the Chinese toon adds a nice color contrast and an oniony flavor that also makes it “perfect for ceviche and other light seafood dishes that are calling for that extra bite.” Chef Prevatt slices the scallops and melons into thin pieces, pours over a leche de tigre quick-marinade with freshly squeezed orange, lime and lemon juices, shoyu, sriracha, and grated ginger, and tops the plate with the Chinese toon and fresh cilantro.

Chefs also favor neon sweet potato leaves for the brilliant yellow color and subtle, sweet taste. Another popular variety is micro lemongrass, which imparts a subtle lemon bouquet with only a slightly grassy texture and is much easier to handle than the full-grown version.

Zane Holmquist, executive chef of Stein Eriksen Lodge in Salt Lake City, uses micro lemongrass for a Kona crab and hearts of palm soup with ginger for an aromatic, semi-sweet pop of flavor and an added texture. He sources micro cilantro as garnish for a Spanish turbot dish with ivory lentils, house-made chorizo, and marcona almonds, and he chooses micro celery for a starter of fois gras with pear and walnut onion bread.

At The Chef’s Garden, beet blush has grown in popularity. By controlling the growing process of beets, the root vegetable produces beautiful, miniature leaves. “Just like when a potato starts to sprout, we’ll harvest beets in the fall and put them in the proper environment that blocks chlorophyll, or light, and the leaves turn florescent yellow with blood- red veins,” Jones explains. “They have the essence of beet, but are more subtle and have a nice sweetness.”

This season, Jones has harvested pea blossoms, which are more flower-like and delicate than pea shoots or tendrils. Chefs will order the fava blooms and petite purple, green, and yellow snow pea greens for their pretty appearance and sweet taste.

“I’ve seen chefs make a pea soup shooter as an amuse-bouche where they might float a pea blossom on the top for a flavorful garnish,” Jones says, adding that flowering cruciferous blooms, like cauliflower, are trending because they add an extra layer of flavor, crunch, and complexity to dishes.

Amanda Cohen, chef/owner of Dirt Candy in New York City, favors Salad Savoy’s kale sprouts, a miniature hybrid of Brussels sprouts and red-leaf kale for her modern version of a matzo ball soup. Chef Cohen uses a galangal broth that’s poured over a poached egg and a small stir-fry of the kale sprouts, shishito peppers, and okra.

“The kale sprouts taste of kale, but in the body of Brussels sprouts,” she says. “I really love their texture because it delivers that kale taste in a way people aren’t used to, and I enjoy playing with flavor and texture combinations that people can’t quite put their finger on. It forces them to slow down and pay attention to what they’re tasting.”

Some chefs have developed a system to harvest living microgreens and other small greens in their kitchens. At The Kitchen in Boulder, Colorado, Executive Chef Kyle Mendenhall sources trays of these microgreens, or sprouts, from Altan Alma Organic Farm and stores them in the walk-in for a few days. Cooks snip the greens just before service and store them, loosely wrapped in a moist paper towel to prevent wilting, in undercounter refrigerators on the line for easy access.

“Some of my favorites are coriander sprouts, otherwise known as micro cilantro, and tarragon and fennel sprouts,” Chef Mendenhall says. “I also like red-streaked sorrel, which has a lemony, acidic taste that’s great for whitefish, and radish sprouts that taste like horseradish or a spicy mustard.”

Since the sprouts are so delicate, he lightly dresses them with a touch of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, and a pinch of salt and uses them for garnishing fish as well as lighter dishes with pasta and chicken. This season, he’s serving the pea sprouts atop pan-seared chicken breast with ramp mashed potatoes and a lemon beurre blanc.

At The Rookery Café in Juneau, Alaska, Chef Beau Schooler uses flower-like purple shiso microgreens for a dish with Alaskan spot prawns, Japanese sweet potato, and lime butter.

“They have a citrusy, floral flavor that works great with the prawns and also with the sweet potato,” Chef Schooler says. “They look pretty and add nice pops of flavor and texture to the dish.”

Wade Wiestling, vice president of culinary for The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Minneapolis, also favors microgreens for his many fish dishes. He sources a blend of microgreens from the 115-year-old DragSmith Farms in Barron, Wisconsin. “The blend changes over the course of the year depending on what’s in season, but the variety, colors, and visual textures instantly elevate the food,” Wiestling says. “The microgreens are definitely more intense than eating the full-grown leaf.” The blend, which is grown in greenhouses, might include little edamame shoots, micro fava greens, baby arugula, baby spinach varieties, mini chard, and petite beet greens.

To store the greens, which come packed loosely in a cardboard box, Wiestling places them in a plastic container lined with a cloth to absorb moisture and keeps them in the refrigerator.