Celebrating Heirloom Vegetables

Farmer Lee Jones is the co-owner of the The Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio, a family-owned farm that practices sustainable farming of specialty vegetables for some of the country's most heralded kitchens. He was the first farmer ever to judge Food Network's "Iron Chef America."


What Does Heirloom Mean?

The definition of an heirloom is anything worth being passed from one generation to the next. Beyond the object, it comes with a rich history.  With vegetables, an heirloom is treasured for its incredible flavor or other unique characteristics worth preserving.

There is no question that over the past 50 years, commercial vegetable production in the U.S. has selected varieties based on how well they will ship 3,000 miles, how many tons per acre they will produce and how resistant they are to disease.  In essence it's all about how cheaply we can produce food.

What we're trying to do at The Chef's Garden is to go back to those old heirloom varieties that are grown for the characteristics that provide something unique in flavor,  texture or presentation. It's an entirely different set of criteria for us here.

Heirloom varieties may not be the highest yielding or able to withstand long transit, but they've been handed down over generations because they offer something special. It's very exciting to see the appreciation of heirlooms and culinary trends tying together.


Why Heirloom?

One of the trends we're seeing is vegetables taking center stage. Interestingly enough, a few chefs that many consider the best in the world have been heading in this direction for years.

Ferran Adrià was here a few years ago for a tour with Charlie Trotter. One of the things they said during their visit was, we're not going to develop or create any new species of fish or cattle, but there's so much opportunity for creativity with vegetables. Alain Ducasse told me this about three or four years ago as well. 

There are literally thousands of vegetable varieties to be explored, and I predict you will see vegetables as a main entrée more and more.  There's enough flavor in the heirloom varieties that, if they're prepared properly, they can command the center of the plate.

As diners become more and more savvy, we're also seeing more interest in sustainably grown quality.  More awareness, more education and more knowledge have also made chefs and their clientele more seasonally sensitive.

People often ask me what my favorite vegetable is, and invariably I tell them it's whatever is in season.  When asparagus is in season, my personal belief is that we should eat it three times a day.  Then when it goes out of season we should lust for it for 10 months. 

I think it is great to see clientele offended because they're aware something on the menu is out of season.  It's certainly something that we support, embrace and believe.  It's one thing for Ferran Adrià and Alain Ducasse to say it, but when diners demand it, that's a sign that the vegetable is taking center stage and that, to me, is extremely exciting.