Inspired by an acclaimed New York chef, Freshlist works with regional farmers to bring new produce to Charlotte plates.
by Ben Jarrell | photos by Michael Hrizuk
In late September, Vince Giancarlo received the phone call for which he had been waiting nearly a year.
The Honeynuts had arrived.
For this special ingredient, Giancarlo, executive chef and a partner at Zeppelin in South End, was first on the call list of Jesse Leadbetter, owner of Freshlist, a produce-delivery service for professional kitchens in the Charlotte area. But like many other culinary innovations, this one took time.
In 2013, the world’s top professional chefs, from Ferran Adrià — the retired chef of the famed El Bulli in Spain — to South Carolina’s Sean Brock, gathered to bridge the gap between culinary professionals and researchers from land-grant universities — simply put, between cooks and the farmers that supply them. The event was titled, “Seeds: The Future of Flavor.” Chef and event host Dan Barber illustrated the problem with a question:
Why aren’t farmers growing for flavor?
The short answer was that they had never been asked to do so.
Barber is chef-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, part-research farm, part-avant garde restaurant where guests dine in isolated elegance in the Hudson Valley area of upstate New York at $300 a pop.
To Barber, it was frustratingly simple: Select seeds for flavor, not production value. Commodify delicious.
After that 2013 meeting, Barber teamed with Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek to develop a variety of squash they called the “honeynut.” It was smaller, sweeter — and didn’t need the typical adjuncts of maple syrup or honey, according to Barber. Five years later, the duo joined with organic seed grower Matthew Goldfarb to launch Row 7 Seed Company, backed by former Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb, among others. The mission of Row 7 is to develop tastier organic vegetables without genetic engineering.
Leadbetter’s Freshlist team is now working with Bluebird Farm in Morganton, about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte, to grow the flavorful squash for a handful of lucky clients. While Honeynut production has soared in the Northeast, the squash isn’t yet widely available in Southern states.
Leadbetter started Freshlist in 2013 to connect professional chefs with local farmers.
The company has seen explosive growth over the last couple of years, surging from 25 clients at the beginning of 2018 to more than 250 today. Eventually, Leadbetter and his team want to expand to include more direct-to-consumer business, which so far has only been offered in a few neighborhoods.
The team at Freshlist is well-grown. Head of culinary operations Matt Martin, previously chef at vegan restaurant Fern, is a valuable resource as cooks explore unfamiliar vegetables. Gigi Lytton, who oversees operations and food safety, finds ways to develop protocols. The color-coded inventory system she developed for Freshlist increases traceability and efficiency. Farm coordinator Erin Bradley, Leadbetter’s first hire, is a former high-school teacher with a background in agribusiness, having worked with farmers markets and roadside stands in high school and as an undergraduate at Appalachian State University.
According to Leadbetter, his company is entering a new phase as he constantly seeks to improve the financial viability of small farming in our area. As a part of this next step, Freshlist hopes to incrementally expand his work with “celebrity” seed companies like Barber’s Row 7 to bring new varieties of produce to local kitchens by way of Charlotte-area farms.
In addition to Zeppelin’s Giancarlo, Paul Verica at The Stanley, Rob Clement at the Porter’s House, and Ashley Bivens-Boyd of 300 East are among Charlotte chefs who have taken advantage of Freshlist’s Row 7 seed project.
Giancarlo’s style — straightforward but academic, approachable but inventive — is informed by the time he spent at two-Michelin-star Melisse and Charcoal Venice in southern California before returning to Charlotte to open Zeppelin in 2017. He talks about the “illustrious grazing” at the Santa Monica Farmers Market — one of the country’s largest, and where he first saw Dan Barber’s new squash.
“I got out there in October 2016 and was working in both kitchens. One of the first really fun ingredients I remember them bringing in was Honeynut squash,” Giancarlo says. “We found out very quickly it was a Dan Barber hybrid and that he had developed a way to raise the sugar content by keeping it smaller. It made so much sense.”
Giancarlo points to the almost universal rule of thumb in kitchens: smaller is sweeter.
“The smaller, the more condensed the flavor. You see that in Prince Edward Island mussels, clams. We use Point Judith calamari and they’re these small squid but they have this amazing flavor and sweetness to them.”
About a year ago, Giancarlo approached Leadbetter with a question: Can he get Dan Barber’s honeynut squash? At the California restaurants where Giancarlo had previously worked, the squash, when available, was the star of the plate. He took the same approach at Zeppelin.
In early fall, Giancarlo prepared the Honeynut squash on a Big Green Egg grill, plating it with a bruised, raw collard-greens slaw, hot wildflower honey, smoked cheese, and toasted oat crumbs. Giancarlo was confident in the squash’s ability to stand as the main ingredient on the plate, rather than as simply the complement to a protein.
The Honeynut was a huge success, according to Freshlist’s Bradley. However, because Row 7 seeds were originally developed for upstate New York, growing them in the Piedmont can be trial-and-error.
“Always down to experiment,” is how Bradley describes Phyllis Walsh, another farmer working closely with the Freshlist team. Walsh’s property, Dabhar Farm off U.S. Highway 74 in Monroe, grows everything from hot-house tomatoes and celery to kale and strawberries. But through a partnership with Freshlist and a bag of seed from Row 7, she’s now experimenting with a new variety of snow pea. Bred to thrive in cold weather, the Beauregarde snow pea is a sweeter version that maintains its rich purple-blue color after cooking.
When asked about the demand for her specialty produce like the Beauregarde peas, Phyllis is quick to point out the direction.
“Oh, it’s gone up.”
Back at Cornell, Row 7’s Mazourek developed the habanada pepper to express all the flavors of a habanero without the accompanying heat. A handful of Charlotte chefs featured them last summer, including Chris Coleman, who bought some to use in the house hot sauce at his new Goodyear House restaurant in NoDa. A third round of habanada seeds will go in the ground in February. Expect to see the peppers on more Charlotte menus this summer.
Freshlist is hoping to expand this model, acting as a liaison between chef and farmer, Leadbetter says. He is hoping to use these three vegetables — the Honeynut, the Beauregarde snow pea and the habanada pepper — as a prototype for bringing in additional specialty ingredients for local farms to grow. All it takes to get farmers on board is an assurance that chefs will buy the products. So far, it’s been a successful test.
“We sold through everything at Bluebird [Farm in Morganton] in one week,” says Leadbetter of last fall’s Honeynut squash harvest.
But, most importantly for Leadbetter: “The farmer grows it. And they get a check.” SP