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Mr. Hancock

Food & Beverage

Vegetables Take Center Stage in Today's Cuisine

By Paul Hancock, Executive Chef, Miramonte Resort and Spa

Vegetables are no longer served as garnishes or accompaniments but, center stage in the dining scene in this day. Plate design and bold flavors are more paramount than ever. The "wow" effect is in full effect. Guests are more eager to try something new more than ever before. It is entertainment, so it has to be great and throughout the dining experience.

There is a cultural shift happening right in front of our eyes with vegetables. Vegetables have been the unsung heroes of the plate for many decades. That is changing. I will not enter the realm as to why this shift is occurring but there are probably plenty of reasons. Food evolves, trends evolve, and cultures evolve. From macaroni and cheese, to angel hair pomodoro, to ramen, then back to gourmet 5 cheese macaroni and cheese again. Dating back to Socrates and further, food heals, tonics and tinctures as well as other items were made to heal and fight disease.

Mixologists are crafting some incredibly creative drinks and libations throughout the globe. The use of house made bitters, tonics, herbs, spices, ice in different forms, helps to deliver a world class cocktail. Some are stand alone with bold flavors along with some that are toned down to compliment food pairings. This is incredibly fun way to deliver that "talking point" and keep the guest engaged.

Wines are accented with herbs, berries, vegetables that compliment, add a layer of complexity, and simply tantalize taste buds. Molecular gastronomy has taken a large role with the entertainment aspect of food and beverage concoctions. Marina Mercer, a master mixologist creates and pairs drinks with vegetables and fruits that excite. The fire breathing dragon, one of her creations, envelopes frozen raspberries into the drink, so that when consumed the "smoke" pillows out when you breathe from your face.

Bartenders and Mixologists are pushing the boundaries by creating some stellar drinks to appeal to health conscious as well by adding vegetable components like beet juice, cucumbers and that so special celery juice ice cube showered bloody Mary. Wine and craft beers are developing different flavor profiles and standing the test of time while going down the same path. Citrus flavors seem like a no brainer when added to accent an ipa, chocolate added to a stout, cherry wheat ales to the more adventurous flavorings with notes of mango, watermelon, and so on.

Vegetables tell such a dramatic story. They have essential minerals and nutrients that nourish. We should stop to listen more often. Versatility, sustainability, flexibility are just a few words that come to mind when vegetables are the topic. They tell a story, they bring marriage of flavors in symphonic fashion. They have been the bowties and now are the tuxedos to the main event but, have always been.

I remember the first time I tasted lasagna, there were angels dancing somewhere. The first time I tasted lobster bisque, the notes and explosions of flavors that went off like the 4th of July. These flavor profiles would not be possible without the background and underlying notes of the vegetables used to compliment these dishes. They usher in a marriage of flavors. They are the motor neurons speaking to the nerve neurons all while delivering nutrition.

Much has changed in the recent past, and more focus and demand has been placed on the chef, restauranteur, or hotelier to provide exciting dishes that are flavor forward and nutritious. It is rather easy with vegetables. Throughout the years, in my opinion vegetarians were not rewarded with openness of their simple request. Most chefs went straight for the ol' pasta pomodoro or mushroom risotto. Some stepped up to the challenge and met the guest with an amazing array of endless possibilities that is deserving for the vegetables used.

For whatever reason, maybe a lack of knowledge, insecurity in craft, stubbornness, it took asking and asking to get vegetable dishes on the menu. "Upon request" was not received by either side positively. Now, most menus even chain restaurants have complete vegetarian dishes. Michelin starred restaurants have made the stars of the plate from the garden and one Michelin starred restaurant has even switched over to entirely vegetarian for a brief stint.

While some chefs blaze the trail to tease the palates of discerning guests others are gregarious in delivering bold flavors with the incorporation of different herbs and spices. Simple sharing plates can have exciting twists, such as grilled eggplant, lebni, and pomegranate molasses or roasted kuri squash, grilled butternut squash, with mole negro, clementine's and tangerine lace to warm the soul on those fall nights. Tomatoes in any form can transcend a dish from the simplest of flavors to the most complex. The tenacity of any vegetable is unlimited.

As Chefs, it is our responsibility to be stewards in as many roles as we can. Stewards of our earth, stewards of health, and stewards of our culture. We have a microphone of creativity and all we have to do is turn it on sometimes and the masses will gather. We must deliver dishes that excite, tantalize and nourish.

There are many tricks up the sleeve and one way is the use of sauces. Sriracha does not knock on the door softly, it smacks your taste buds into next week. Maple, bourbon and soy elevates a component to new heights. Bombay curry with cardamom yogurt brightens up any component and balances like a roller coaster. The excitement of being daring and taking risks is seeing the smile on the face of your guests.

There are endless techniques and methods that can be applied but offering exponential flavors is not only daring but rewarding. New flavor profiles can be achieved and new flavor combinations can be created. It can bring excitement to the guest and energize the staff while vegetables can be the bridge for all of this to come together.

Different techniques are applied to achieve optimal flavor. Age old techniques such as fermentation, smoking, curing, brining, really help pack a punch. Smoked trout can be accompanied by yogurt, snow peas, mint, and salmon caviar gently combines these ingredients yet, the dish is lifted with snow peas to another level of flavor, especially if you froze the snow pea juice. The brininess of the smoked trout and caviar is balanced with the snow peas which increases layers of flavors with this dish of some basic techniques.

Sous vide has been around for decades and is ever more used and is increasing in popularity. Molecular gastronomy is also playing a prominent roll delivering bold flavors by precision of technique. Vegetable ash is growing in popularity again and provides a blanket of flavor to enhance or to compliment. Vegetables have always been the foundation to promote umami.

The usual suspects that can be the focus of a dish or take a underlying role to create a marriage of flavors. There are few things that are better than caramelized onion with rosemary, or honey glazed carrots with black pepper and thyme when cooked perfectly. Cauliflower has taken on many additions in the form of center of the plate, purees, appetizers, with a variety of different pairings. There is a wide range of flavors when using vegetables and herbs as the main ingredient. There are lots of favorites from many different cultures that stand up to the test of crowd pleasing.

With this shift in culture, we must educate ourselves and challenge ourselves as members of this hospitality industry worldwide to be inventive as possible while building a broader network that acts as sustainable stewards of our earth. We must make hard decisions for our future, and can have fun while doing it. The simple most priority is to increase food literacy and build healthy communities. With that we have such a beautiful painter's palate to achieve works of art, not only for gastronomy but, also for overall health.

Vegetables have amazing characteristics, different colors, textures in their own right and appropriately ripeness in peak season. I look forward to the different seasons to have a new repertoire to work with each and every year. Winter for the finest truffles, citrus, persimmons, potato, Spring for ramps, asparagus, broccoli, peas, fall for pumpkin, berries, apples, squash, kale and summer not just for the ripest tomato, but also for the bounty of green beans, avocado, zucchini, and eggplant. There are different hues in these seasons that we can use to sparkle that visual delight from the deepest of reds from the ripest tomato to the beautiful pastels of summer.

Everything comes full circle. I am glad vegetables are here as the main character. I am so lucky to be a part of this shift in culture as there are so many talented people that bring their own interpretation of creativity not just as professionals but also, in our communities. Get out, Get excited, plant your own garden, make your own hot sauce, and vegg more! Your body will thank you.

Chef Paul Hancock took an interest in the kitchen at an early age. He also had a fascination with how other people did things, how they cooked their food. So began a path of culinary discovery, rich with fine dining experiences at exclusive supper clubs in North Carolina, and in the South’s legendary restaurants. Chef Hancock traveled to the French Alps to for his apprenticeship at L’auberge de L’Eridian under Chef Marc Veyrat - a 3-star Michelin chef renowned for his foraging and use of wild herbs and ingredients. Chef Hancock now calls Indian Wells home and focus on building new relationships in the small community of Indian Wells. Mr. Hancock can be contacted at 760-837-1631 or phancock@destinationhotels.com Please visit http://miramonteresort.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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