Carrot Invitational

How do chefs think, and why do they do what they do? A challenge involving the humblest produce reveals all.

Cosmos
Graves 601 Hotel
601 First Avenue N., Minneapolis
612.677.1100
www.cosmosrestaurant.com

jP American Bistro
2937 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
612.824.9300
www.jpamericanbistro.com

It was one of those winter days in Minnesota that's as gray and patchy as a dead elephant, and not much more inspiring. I stood in the sparkling, robotically misted aisle of lettuces in my local grocery palace, staring at the things I knew should make the "center" of my plate—the tufts of kale, the cords of carrots, the lumps of squash—and I hadn't a single thought in my food-saturated head of what to do with any of them.

I was on a sabbatical, so the nightly need to dine out was gone and replaced by, of all things, the nightly need to dine in. I had gone through all my by-heart recipes, and so now I stood there in the overfull aisles, famished, wan, and despairing. Like Robinson Crusoe, I found myself shipwrecked, strained, forced to take the very measure of my soul when confronted with rough and unforgiving elements—never mind the stone-ground chips and Belgian chocolates within arm's reach!

As the magnitude of the situation came fully upon me, I cracked, and verily howled to the heavens: "Why can't the Twin Cities' top chefs cook something for me, in my house, without me having to get dressed and entertain them? And why can't they cook with the commodity produce we commoners are saddled with, instead of the 60-year-old balsamic vinegar and FedEx'd microgreens they always use? I mean, why can't the Twin Cities top chefs do something with a bag of carrots already?"

Thus began the project I've come to call the Bag of Carrots Invitational, which has taught me more about chefs than I ever deserved to learn with such a silly premise. I contacted two of Minneapolis's best chefs, Seth Bixby Daugherty and J.P. Samuelson, and asked them if they could come up with a recipe based on the plainest of all produce, a bag of carrots. A recipe for everyday Joes in everyday kitchens. No chef tricks, I stipulated, no $3,000 blenders that create ice cream as they whir, no black truffles, no relying on a staff for pithless yuzu reductions.

I sat back and waited for my results. And waited. And waited. Top chefs, it turns out, are busier than a box of Kleenex at a PeeWee hockey tournament. Six months later, I find myself contemplating bagged winter carrots in the height of farmers' market season, but no matter.

The first chef, Seth Bixby Daugherty, is the head of the restaurant Cosmos downtown, and is the creative chief of restaurant operations for the Graves hotel empire, currently expanding into Chicago, California, and ultra-high-pressure New York City. Daugherty was also named, last year, by Food & Wine magazine, one of the best new chefs in America, and he seems to have achieved the odd distinction of being somehow more famous nationally than he is here—probably because his restaurant is up on the fourth floor of the Graves 601 Hotel, the thing that used to be called Le Meridien and is across from the Target Center. His mega-underdog status isn't why I picked him, though. I chose Daugherty because he has an almost mysterious cooking style. His dishes are complexly built, yet ultimately they come across as forthright and simple.

Once I got the recipe, I interviewed Daugherty to find out his reasoning. "I was thinking about kids, about what my kids will eat," he told me, "and what other kids might eat. My kids have been eating vegetables their whole life, they know what a pumpkin is, what's a cauliflower, but I think most kids today are completely uneducated about food, and it's absolutely a crisis. Food is as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Can you learn anything if you're functionally starving? Issues of obesity, diabetes, heart disease—unless we get kids educated about food, things are going to get worse than anyone can imagine."

It turns out that Daugherty is on a mission to get the Eden Prairie schools, where his two children are enrolled, to serve higher quality food, and is meeting a lot of resistance. "If you look at a group of kids today, it's kind of grotesque," Daugherty told me. "They're eating chicken nuggets every day, and you know [their diet] is full of hormones, and they've got a Coke in their hand at 1:00 in the afternoon, and you wonder why they're struggling with ADD and have breasts in second grade. Unless we address this issue of what kids eat as a culture it's going to get worse and worse.

"In the Eden Prairie school district they blame money, but they have enough money to have an indoor practice facility for the football team, just not enough to invest in the food that goes into their students," he continues. "It's frustrating and embarrassing, with everything we know about nutrition as a culture to just be leaving our own children malnourished and vulnerable like this. I'm trying to make a stink and it's not making me popular, but we're only on this planet for a very short time, and if I can do something to help people less fortunate than me, I'm going to do it."

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