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November 4, 2020

Blossoming Botanicals

One of my favorite sayings (and the best professional advice I’ve ever received) originated when I was in a culinary program in high school, longer ago than I care to admit, as I write this blog on my 21st birthday (LOL… well, maybe not 21st.)  

My Culinary instructor was the late, great Keith Richards, a chef, not to be confused with the iconic guitarist from The Rolling Stones.

Chef Richards told us repeatedly, “As long as you’re green, you’ll grow”. Those simple words made a big impression on me.  I have really taken them to heart, as they have been one of the guiding principles I have lived my entire career by. I try to learn constantly, and at least one new thing each day, to better my skills and knowledge of our beloved craft.

The most important part of that saying is being, or staying green. In other words, not thinking you know it all, being able to admit it, and be comfortable with that fact.

I freely admit that when the whole "Botanicals Trend” started to emerge, it somewhat confused me. I always cooked with plants, so what was the trend? Quizzically, I did some research, and this was the stock answer I found:
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Food Botanicals: Fresh or dried plants, plant parts, or plants' isolated or collective chemical components, extracted in water, ethanol, or other organic solvents, plus essential oils, oleoresins, and other extractives used for flavoring, fragrance, functional health benefits, medicine, or other uses.

OOOOOH-KAAAAY… as I did more digging, it was obvious that the beverage industry in particular harnessed the trend extremely well, by expanding their portfolios to include vodkas and rums with flavor hints ranging from grapefruit to huckleberry, and whiskies with the essence of everything from hot cinnamon, to jalapeño honey. By the way, all of these spirits are fun to cook and create with.

As I researched more, the botanical picture became clearer.

It dawned on me that I had experienced the world-class inclusion of botanicals on a menu during a trip to Santiago, Chile many years prior. A group of chefs from Custom Culinary® traveled to Santiago to attend the 2010 WACS Congress. I had the great pleasure to spend about 12 days in Chile, with an extended stay in Santiago.

The most enlightening experience I had there is one that I will cherish forever. One afternoon, our entire culinary team was given a private presentation by a young up-and-coming food star by the name of Chef Rodolfo Guzman. Upon arriving at his restaurant, which was closed for the day, the expectations were pretty low. Then, with amazing humility, Chef Guzman began to explain the premise of his philosophy on food and his restaurant, Boragó.

Barago’s daily menu is positioned as “A Dialogue between Nature and Cuisine”. Through the local university, Chef Guzman has access to the natives of the Mapuche Indian tribe from which he gains access to unique botanicals from the local rainforest. Each culinary wonder he puts on his menu, besides being unusually appealing and delicious, has in some way a healthful, nutraceutical property. He has harvested and brought many of these plants back to a small unassuming garden next to his restaurant which I called “the magic garden”. He uses “components” throughout his menu with endless creativity. Talk about being “True to the Food”. This was, and is, as close as you can get.

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After our lecture, Chef Guzman offered us the opportunity to dine at Boragó the next night, an opportunity we all jumped at. The twelve-course meal that we experienced was the most amazing, unusual, and thought provoking I have ever had. Albeit not typical of the food of Chile or South America at all, it was as real to that culture as you could ever get.

Since then, Boragó has moved and expanded, but still held true to its roots. Chef Guzmán and his team hunt ingredients from the northern Atacama Desert, to deepest Patagonia in the south, to unearth forgotten or often-ignored botanicals. He works directly with 200 foraging communities and small producers to bring ultra-seasonal ingredients to the menu. His cooks gather from the nearby coastline and mountains and most days the menu is formed depending on what arrives at his door on the day.

This experience was no doubt a master class on the inclusion of botanicals on menus, from the amuse bouche through dessert.

Some of the best examples of this dynamic trend featured in the Custom Culinary® product portfolio can be seen in our Passport Global Flavors™ line. Our Passport Global Flavors by Custom Culinary® Thai-Style Vegan Broth, for example, is accented with coconut cream, lemongrass, and tamarind. Our Passport Global Flavors™ by Custom Culinary® Beef Pho Broth is accented with the rich botanical essence of ginger, jalapeño and brown spices.

Another is our dessert “mother sauce", Custom Culinary® Gold Label Crème Anglaise Sauce. Its classic, creamy, cooked vanilla custard flavor is delicious alone, or can be accented with hints of botanical flavors from hibiscus to rose water. The opportunities are as endless as your creativity.

I hope that you take some time to experiment with some of these products and explore this healthful flavor packed trend on your own. I’m certain you won’t be disappointed nor will your patrons. Until next time and as always, “Be True to The Food”!

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Michael Smith, CEC, AAC 
Corporate Executive Chef 
Custom Culinary, Inc.