The best chefs in the world have made an amazing discovery: fresh produce is more than a side dish. They are finding new and exciting ways to fix, cook and present fresh fruits and vegetables.


Who are the world’s best chefs? Well, the most prestigious restaurant awards are the stars granted by the Michelin Guides to restaurants and hotels. Three stars is tops.


There are only 72 restaurants in the world that get three Michelin stars. Twenty-seven are in France, and six are in the U.S., with four in New York, one in Las Vegas and one in California.


The chefs in these restaurants are celebrities, super chef-owners, some of whom have built restaurant empires, such as Alain Ducasse, with restaurants from Paris to Las Vegas to Tokyo. At one time he ran three 3-star restaurants, in Paris, Monte Carlo, New York.


Gordon Ramsay, the profane Brit who seems to be on television nonstop, has a 3-star restaurant in London, a 2-star in New York.


A lot of these super chefs are finding new ways to cook, present and serve fresh produce.


They are looking for new combinations, or better ways to present old combinations.


It seems a lot of them have “discovered” the combination of fresh strawberries and rhubarb.  Only these chefs don’t just whip up a strawberry-rhubarb pie. They find a dozen new combinations, with essences, sauces, flavors and theatrical presentations.


These offerings had better be good, because a typical side dish or dessert can cost anywhere from $35 to $100 in one of these top-line restaurants. Dinner prices typically run a minimum $300 a person. (The after-dinner mint is free.)


The super chef who has made the biggest splash in produce is Alain Passard, who runs a 3-star restaurant, L’Arpege, in Paris.
He stirred things up when he said that he was bored with cooking meat, fish, and poultry because just about everything that can be done has been done. He found a new food frontier: fresh produce.


To do the job right he decided to grow his own. He created a six-acre produce garden that is farmed the old-fashioned way, not just organically, but with a horse to do the plowing.


The produce, dozens of varieties, is picked each morning, put on a high-speed train with no refrigeration, and sent to the Paris restaurant. The food picked in the morning is served for lunch that same day. It doesn’t get much fresher than that.
The garden provides 20,000 pounds of fresh produce each year.


Passard didn’t stop with freshness. Preparation is also crucial. He believes in “the flame,” carefully controlled heat that cooks without burning or overcooking. He looks for new items, new combinations, new flavors, “excitement.”


One of Passard’s signature dishes is an apple tart, really a deep dish apple pie, with each apple cut to resemble a rose. The dish is the apple tart “bouquet of roses.” The name is copyrighted.


A lot of these big-time chefs are devoting time and effort to produce side dishes.


These become events rather than afterthoughts. One diner at Arpege wrote that the “smoked potatoes with horseradish sauce was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten.”


Of course, cooking involves a lot of use of caramelized carrots, onions and other items — leeks, young peas, spring vegetables with herbs, a “stew” of fresh asparagus and turnips, a medley of root vegetables.


A lot of this culinary effort will eventually trickle down to restaurant and kitchen tables around the world. No, it won’t result in $50 side dishes. But a lot of restaurant chains now turn to top chefs to improve their menus. Weekend chefs are looking for new dishes, new ways to prepare mundane fare. 


Commodity groups sometime hire these top-line chefs to prepare new dishes. I remember some years back when the potato folks hired a big-time chef to develop a dozen or so new potato recipes.


Yes, some were weird and relied on hand-picked clams found only on remote beaches.  But a couple of the dishes were so good I would have quit my job and tried to market them if they could have been mass produced.


It is easy enough now to go online and look at the menus of these world-class restaurants. It becomes obvious that produce is no longer an also-ran.


These restaurateurs are proud of their sources. Guy Savoy, another 3-star chef whose restaurant goes by his own name, lists his suppliers of wine, fish, produce, cheese and fruit.


“Only the best is good enough,” he says in his literature. (He has a 2-star branch in Las Vegas, where the $290 “prestige menu” is one the priciest anywhere.)


His special menu of “tastes, textures and flavors” in France is $400 per person.


Who can afford to eat at these places? The rich, one supposes. But for others this an outing for an occasion, a big job promotion, an anniversary, the closing of the business deal.


One doesn’t have to be a starred restaurant to promote freshness and one’s pride in the suppliers. Five Guys, a hamburger chain with 300 locations in 23 states, serves only fresh-cut french fries cut and cooked on the spot, plus hamburgers with all the fixings. The local Five Guys features the bags of potatoes stacked in the store, with the name of the Idaho potato supplier chalked on a blackboard.


That may be a far cry from $400-a-head taste and texture menus, but freshness and a little pride gets the job done, even at $9 a head.


E-mail Larry Waterfield at lww4@verizon.net.

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