It stands to reason that the freshest, most colorful, most nutritious vegetables are also the most flavorful. It’s not rocket science. But it is science, and it’s why The Chef’s Garden’s team of researchers is always experimenting with better ways to improve those important qualities in the farm’s fresh microgreens, edible flowers, leaves, vegetables and herbs.
“Things that look good normally are,” said Research Specialist Nicholas Walters. “If you have something that has a really dark green color or a vibrant red color, chances are it’s got a lot of secondary metabolites and phytonutrients that are there to help you protect and build your own body. But it’s really all about flavor, and we’re finding that the more we learn about some of these crops, the more we’re learning how we can have a big influence on how the flavor turns out in the end.”
Walters cited basil as an example. “It’s not producing these flavors to be delicious for us. It’s a pesticide,” Walters explained. “It’s a preventative measure they take to protect themselves. There’s all kinds of things we can do to manipulate the growing environment, or the fertility, or all kinds of things that’ll change the way the plant expresses its own body and its own flavors.”
From Soil to Shelf
The Chef’s Garden recently opened the doors to a brand new on-site agricultural research facility. The new lab and updated equipment will expand the researchers’ ability to conduct soil and tissue tests to gather information about nutrient content, soil health and other flavor-influencing factors without wasting precious time.
“We can go ahead and give them the nutrients that they need right then, so it’s an immediate response to the plant,” said Research Assistant Sarah Hinman. “So, as we adjust or add the nutrient, it’s making it available for that plant. So the plant’s healthier, which will result in a healthier product or fruit.”
The presence or absence of specific nutrients, such as calcium and potassium, for example, can have a significant impact on shelf life, which can in turn affect the long-term flavor of a stored vegetable.
“If you’re deficient in those, your product is going to be more soft,” Hinman said. “It’s not going to have the quality or nutritional value. So, if you make sure those are definitely sufficient, you will have a much longer shelf life.”
The new agricultural research lab also allows for testing of other shelf-life influencers, such as packaging. “In some instances, the more light the crop has, the more dry weight it accumulates, and the more it’s able to slow down its cellular respiration in the package,” said botanist Walters. “We have a machine, an IRGA, an infrared gas analyzer, and we’re going to be taking headspace measurements of the packaging. So,we’re going to take our product, package it up, put it in a fridge and, every day, we’re going to take a little bit of gas from inside the package and measure it for breakdown products, off smells, off flavors, so we’ll be able to do some robust shelf life testing with the laboratory, which I’m really excited about.”
Building Better Biology
Experimenting with outdoor cover crops to observe their impact on soil biology is also important, according to Research Assistant Deanna Forbush. “We want to see if that’s influenced flavor,” Forbush said. “We want to see if that’s influencing aroma, we want to see how the actual soil health relates back to our vegetables, which relates back to our product, which relates back to how our chefs feel about our product.”
The role of soil-building healthy microbes on flavor are another target for testing, according to Forbush.
“There’s not really a lot known about microbes and how they influence the flavor of something, but that’s what we’re working to figure out,” Forbush said. “We want to eventually start culturing the microbes and bacteria to see what we actually have, and inoculate one pot with that colony to see if we get a better color, if we get a better aroma, if we get a better flavor, or whatever our chefs are really looking for.”
To test for specific nutrients in specific vegetables, Research Chemist William Koshute said he’ll rely on the lab’s new gas chromatographer.
“This instrument will analyze the components within, say, a carrot, and let us know how much is there,” Koshute said. “We’re trying to analyze them, to find out what their flavor components are, and their nutritional components, so that we have exact answers that we can offer our chefs. I do a lot of carrot research right now, and we are looking to have not only the best tasting carrots, but the most nutritious carrots.”
Koshute’s colleagues agree that the addition of advanced equipment will make a huge difference in the farm’s future research efforts and the continuous pursuit of ultimate flavor.
“I really think that using the gas chromatographer is going to be the key,” Forbush said. “I think doing a lot of the essential oils and flavor profiles is going to be really neat overall to see. We’ve been working on some of them, trying to figure out what is really an aromatic compound, what is an actual flavor compound. What smells nutty to one person can smell woodsy to another, but this really breaks it down and tells you what that compound is. So I can break it down to say, ‘this is why it smells lemony,’ or ‘this is why it tastes tangy or spicy.’”
In Pursuit of Perfection
The Chef’s Garden’s founder “Mr. Bob” Jones Sr. is an ardent supporter and champion of the agricultural research efforts. Never one to rest on his laurels, Jones is always scanning the horizon for a better way to grow a better vegetable.
“Everybody thinks a carrot’s a carrot’s a carrot ─ well that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Jones said. “You can have a carrot that tastes like cardboard, and you can have a carrot that is just wonderfully sweet and melts in your mouth. We test every carrot we can find ─ the competition, grocery store, wherever. We’ve got the best tasting carrot around. We have that now. But we think it can be even better.”