Fad or Future

Seed to table: the brand-new vegetable breeds being created for chain restaurants

Row 7 has made a splash in the US with its specially grown koginut squash, now on the menu at fast-food chain Sweetgreen. Is this just the beginning for chef-breeder collaboration?

4 December 2018
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image credit: Row 7

Often when Food Spark talks about ‘new’ ingredients, we’re talking about new to these shores, like rambutans, or newly popular, like CBD oil; we might even use ‘new’ to refer to fresh ways of cooking something familiar, like seaweed, or a foodstuff that’s recently resurgent, like salsify. Excluding the experimental world of plant-based meats, however, we are rarely talking about something that’s actually, well, new.

The Robin’s koginut squash is one of those rare exceptions. Created by seed company Row 7, the vegetable is the result of selectively breeding two strains of squash – butternut and kabocha – to form something entirely (yes, we'll say it one more time) new. 

This might sound like a niche product aimed only at the fine-dining elite, but Row 7 is targeting the mass market. In fact, the first major champion of the Robin’s koginut is healthy-eating chain Sweetgreen, which released a couple of menu items featuring the ingredient across its 100-plus sites.

Diners at the American fast-food concept can now opt for roasted squash fries or squash bowls alongside their kale Caesar salads and curried cauliflower.

Backed by a marketing campaign that saw it advertised in grand style in New York’s famed Times Square, Robin's koginut is certainly not being confined to a narrow audience.

So what makes this squash so special?

A game of squash

First of all, the Robin’s koginut is meant to pack more flavour than other varieties, thanks to its selective breeding. It’s just one of a number of vegetables that Row 7 has been experimenting with – though it’s the first one to make it to the big time.

Beauregarde snow peas
image credit: Row 7

Founded by respected sustainable chef Dan Barber, vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek and seed expert Matthew Goldfarb, Row 7 is described as the “first seed company built on chef-breeder collaboration.”

Launched at the end of February, its mission is to put explosive taste back at the heart of crop cultivation, while also keeping an eye on building up nutritional attributes.

In the words of Barber: “Real flavour doesn’t start with the chef, or even with the farmer; it begins with plant breeders – the people creating the original recipe for our ingredients. Unfortunately, most plant breeders today are asked to breed for yield, shelf-life and ship-ability, at the expense of good food. What if chefs and eaters could help write the recipe?”

It’s a question Barber and his Row 7 co-founders have been trying to answer for several years, though they only founded their company when Sweetgreen signed up for an order of 100,000 seeds of Robin’s koginut.

Seeding an idea

When formulating its products, Row 7 looks at various breeds of an existing vegetable, examining each one’s properties, before deciding which aspects might go well together. All the seeds they create are certified organic, non-GMO and unpatented, so that other growers can continue to experiment with the flavours and characteristics of the veg (though not on a commercial scale).

Amongst Row 7's other firsts are badge flame beet, a less earthy form of beetroot; Beauregarde snow peas, which pack in more flavour in bright violet shells; a less spicy, more floral and sweet version of the habanero pepper called the habanada, and a handful of others, many in the ‘experimental’ phase.

San Francisco-based hospitality consultants af&co have predicted that companies like Row 7 will be part of a new trend in 2019 for ‘seed to table’ eating, where more chefs work hand in hand with farmers to create unique ingredients specifically designed for certain recipes.

Could the same ideas be sowed here?

 

Sparkie says: 

There was quite a lot of talk a while back about how the focus on ease of growth and consistency has caused a dramatic decrease in flavour. This was one of the main reasons for heritage veg making a comeback.

I think this concept makes perfect sense and could be marketed quite well – as long as the chefs and growers manage to reasonably even out the price for the better flavour. People will be willing to pay some extra if it’s worth it, but there will be a limit to that when similar products are put side by side. 

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