“I am not a vegetarian,” writes Jeremy Fox. “This is not a book about vegetarians: it is a book about vegetables.”
It sure is. In “On Vegetables” (Phaidon, 320 pages, $49.95), Fox has channeled his extensive knowledge of produce of all stripes into an insightful and inspiring treatise on a plant-based cooking philosophy.
Following a tenure at the former and much-heralded Ubuntu in Northern California’s Napa Valley, Fox is now at the helm of Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, where his forward-thinking work just earned him a James Beard nomination for Best Chef: West.
In advance of an early April visit to Minneapolis, Fox discussed the benefits of larder-building, the joy of spring peas and why all cooks should have a bird’s beak knife.
Q: You wrote, “At Rustic Canyon, the food looks like itself, but tastes like a better version of itself.” What does that mean?
A: For a long time, aesthetics were so important to me. Obviously, I wanted things to taste good, but I would make decisions based on aesthetics over flavor. That’s something I definitely outgrew. Now, I want things to look very simple. Nothing extraneous. But there has to be a back story. It may look simple, but every component has to be prepared and seasoned properly, and all the details that go into building flavor have to be respected.
Q: The vivid colors in photographer Rick Poon’s images really jump off the cookbook’s pages. Is capturing color still an essential element to your cooking?
A: For sure. There’s so much vibrancy in produce, whether it’s vegetables, or fruits, or herbs, or flowers. It’s hard not to use that as an art medium, as long as the results remain delicious.
Q: Can you tell me about whole-plant cooking, the produce section’s equivalent of nose-to-tail cooking?
A: That stems from my obsession, years ago, with cooking with pork. Using the entire animal is essential, it’s paying the highest respect to the life that that animal lost. Plants are also living things, and you should try and use everything. There’s so much food waste in this country. It may not necessarily make your food better, but it’s certainly not going to make it worse. It’s the intention, and the respect, that you pay to ingredients, rather than just throwing them in the trash. And if you are throwing them away, they should go into compost.
Q: Why is it important for cooks to build a larder?
A: It’s a way to add complexity to your food, whether it’s preserving, or pickling, or making garlic confit or crème fraîche. They help build flavors in the moment, and will make your cooking taste like you’ve been at it for a long time, even if you’re quickly putting dinner together. I also just like the idea of doing things on your own. It gives you a whole other level of appreciation, knowing that you are making this great polenta using a homemade ricotta. That’s a whole different story than just buying it off the shelf. It’s more personal.
Q: One of your larder items that really intrigues me is pepper tears, the natural juices that leach from roasted peppers. Where did that idea come from?
A: I didn’t invent them — it’s a technique that I learned from chef David Kinch at Manresa [in Los Gatos, Calif.]. It has such a great smoky-sweet taste, it’s the essential flavor of red pepper, with such a slight viscosity. It’s versatile, and a great building block, whether it’s poured on raw brassicas with pine nuts and raisins, or mixed with tomato water and served with fresh tomatoes and basil.
Q: You’re a sunchoke fan. Why?
A: It’s such a unique flavor, and it’s pretty versatile in terms of what you can do. When you roast them with their skins on, the skins get nice and crunchy, and it allows the meat inside to turn almost into candy, super-sweet and custardy.
Q: Is there an underrated vegetable?
A: Kohlrabi. It’s got such a great texture, both raw and cooked. It’s a very clean flavor, kind of like turnips, except that it’s nice and sweet.
Q: You write that the kitchen tool you use more than any other is a bird’s beak knife. What is it?
A: It’s a small paring knife. It doesn’t have a pointy tip. The blade is curved on the interior, a kind of half-moon. It’s very useful, especially with vegetables, it’s good for getting in crevices on the tops of carrots, or turning up mushrooms.
Q: Do clichéd assumptions around the word “vegetarian” irk you?
A: When I first when I first started cooking vegetarian, there was that stigma, that it was somehow lacking or unsatisfying in some way — that it was little more than tofu and brown rice — but I think that’s all changed in the last 10 years.
Q: Is there a vegetable that says “spring” to you?
A: I’m still waiting on fava beans, so it’s probably peas. We’ve had them since January. They’re my favorite spring vegetable to cook because they’re so versatile. They can be savory or sweet, and there are so many different uses for the scraps.
Q: You didn’t like them as a kid, right?
A: No. I don’t know that I had a fresh pea until I was probably 20 years old. I grew up without seeing a lot of vegetables. But being in California, and working in restaurants that had their own gardens, where we’d grow beautiful, pristine, never-seen-before produce, that created an extreme obsession, and an appreciation.