In his restless search for new flavors, one chef discovers the power of the petal.
"It's the role of chefs to look for new flavors," Jean-Georges Vongerichten says. Vongerichten's search has led him to integrate Asian ingredients into the French-based cuisine at his flagship restaurant, New York City's Jean Georges; it's also taken him into the woods to hunt for yarrow and chickweed. The logical next step: cooking with flowers. "Flowers are beautiful, to start with," he says. "People eat them raw in salads, so I thought it would be interesting to cook with them." Vongerichten buys blossoms from the same foragers who bring him wild plants; he also hires farmers to grow blooms to his specifications.
When Vongerichten began experimenting with flowers in the kitchen, he started with what he already knew. Having worked with Louis Outhier at L'Oasis in Provence for 10 years, he was aware that squash blossoms there are often stuffed with fish or meat. But the stuffing overwhelms the taste of the flower. Vongerichten decided to fill his zucchini blossoms with diced zucchini instead, to heighten the flower's flavor. Similarly, the idea for a nasturtium broth came from a classic recipe--this one for mussel soup, traditionally flavored with saffron, itself the pistil of a flower. Vongerichten creatively replaces some of the saffron with spicy nasturtiums. He tapped into tradition again to make marshmallows flavored with rose water: For a garnish he candied rose petals, recalling the antiquated practice of candying violets. Vongerichten, it's clear, can make even antiquated ideas seem as fresh as a daisy.