The Evolution of a Dish:

Jamie Simpson's Potato Salad

man putting heart shaped decors on sticks to wine corks

This winter, we caught up with Jamie Simpson, executive chef liaison at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Ohio. Jamie hosts groups of chefs from all kinds of companies, including independent fine dining restaurants, fast food chains and corporate culinary brands, for research and development retreats on site at The Chef’s Garden. 

Chefs have relied on this farm for 30 years for hundreds of plants, vegetables and edible flowers, honey and more natural products that are hand harvested and sent fresh overnight. In 2020, The Chef’s Garden expanded to home delivery amid the pandemic, and a wider audience has gained access to some of the highest quality produce in time for the farm’s first eponymous cookbook release.

Jamie developed the recipes in the book, along with fellow chefs and farmers, extending his day-to-day role of exposing chefs to new and lesser known applications for well-known vegetables. Between his extensive R&D with cooks from around the world and the many events he caters on and off-site using The Chef’s Garden products, Jamie does a lot of recipe and dish development. We asked him:

Where do you get your inspiration?

Ingredient selection is purely based on season: what looks good, smells good, tastes good right now. Aesthetic selection, architectural approach, whatever you want to call it: that comes from everywhere — a problem with a Vitamix, a hillside full of snow, the way the ice sheets on the frozen river bank out there, and the leaves still hanging on to the tree — all those little things, mostly from nature.

man at greenhouse w/ table setup, sketch, hand with a dish

My favorite form of inspiration of all time is from Andy Goldsworthy. He’s an artist out of the UK, really a photographer. His book, “A Collaboration with Nature,” was a ridiculous approach to reorganizing stuff that already exists. So he would take all the leaves from under a tree and reorganize them chromatically from the base of the tree out in bright reds and yellows to browns and blacks. And it’s the coolest, most laborious thing for a photograph that I’m completely obsessed with. He’ll take all of the icicles on the side of a cliff and re-adhere them together to make an amorphous frozen block of spheres. Look him up.

How do you turn that into a dish?

concept sketch of potato salad's plating

Oftentimes we start with some sort of illustrated sketch. Many times it’s a single image, just these cell phone photos that catch us. Sometimes it’s quick sketches that become your pack list. Sometimes it’s the bottom of a stockpot or a Vitamix blowing up creating patterns or implied movement and motion. Sometimes for aesthetic you can present a different mood, we play with that a lot. Sometimes a visual queue, like a bunch of different textures surrounding a sauce, can be applied in a bunch of different places. Sometimes it’s for an event, and we use the logo for stencils.

  • The main entrance at SingleThread in Healdsburg became a bread and butter course with origami bread and a butter candle. 
  • At midnight, a chef de cuisine pushed a cookie through a dish I was plating and it created a pattern I loved so much I took a photo and re created it.
  • I took pedestals out of the box all together and now they live on a slate roof tile and display crudites
  • We have a lot of walnuts here and commissioned our mold maker to make walnut molds and shells and cast a walnut miso soaked in a walnut liqueur that sits in a chocolate pudding bon bon.
  • Driving from Chicago, I saw a series of jeweler ads and signs and wanted to explore a 24 karat ring so I called the kitchen and asked for 24 textures of carrots before I returned in four hours. I got back to cannoli, carbonated carrot juices, custards, curds, purees and caramels, which I brought together in a dish called 24 carrot gold.

Sometimes the evolution of a dish might come from taking a single ingredient and putting it in as many textures as you can and then learning from that and applying it to new things. We’ve done that with honey, blueberries, cherries and potato.

The dish: Potato Salad with pickled potatoes, potato puree, raw potatoes, celery, egg, mustard, paprika, onions, vinegar, chives.

We won’t serve the same dish, but we’ll definitely serve the same concept and we want to improve on it. An early approach to our potato salad, which is in the book, we started to refine with textures of potato in various forms. As that image circulated the internet we started to see its influence on others in Copenhagen, Italy, Amsterdam... It’s amazing, and we get tagged in these pictures of things that really inspire people.

The original one we did was in between sheets of balled up aluminum foil. This is fine and interesting and it’s giving us the dimension and canvas we want to build on, but it’s not nice to do over and over and over, especially if you’re going to serve a dining room full of people. So we do what we often do: take a trip to Lowe’s or Ace Hardware and figure out how to make it. 

sliced meat and veggies placed in rollers
shaping the potato with copper pipes

Copper pipes conduct heat really well and you’ll see potato woven under and over these pipes. So when you bake, it’s warm and you just pull the pipe out. For a variation, you bake them then you throw them in the dehydrator and they curl up a bit. We found that on accident. I threw them in the dehydrator because I had to go to Chicago to do a dinner and I needed them to stay crispy and then they curled up on accident which sucked at first but we played with it.

The first time we served it in the dining room, it was fine, but it didn’t have the impact that the amount of work required to do it should have commanded. I think what caused it to have the influence it did ultimately was telling a story around it. When I originally posted it, I posted it as a tribute to spending exactly half my life in food service, from where I started in a barbecue restaurant serving baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, right? And learning how to chop those little chives and put the green bits on the white part and not really ever knowing what the green stuff was. [And now working at The Chef’s Garden, where green and gold chives and blooms are grown and sold to chefs.]

And it did really well as a post.

posts of potato salad pictures on 3 instagram pages

I think the culinary world is really thirsty for new ideas. There’s a lot of incestuous behavior and that’s okay because that’s called progress in some cases if it’s an improvement on something. I don’t think anybody is looking at this dish in particular as a viable option for their restaurant or a good, smart thing to add to their menu because it’s a lot of steps and really ridiculous, but it’s inspiring and it’s a new form of architectural freedom that I’d love to spend more time pursuing in this world. We don’t have to be bound by the mashed potatoes and the protein and the sauce and the little vegetables on the side.

Where can we find the recipe?

It made the book which was a big fight. The publishers wanted at-home, easy recipes for people, and I said no because it’s The Chef’s Garden, and we need to inspire people to look at vegetables differently, and potato salad is basically a bunch of vegetables. It took some work to convince them to let us plug more complicated recipes in the book, and here it is. It’s printed and that’s a big deal to convince anyone to do something that’s going to take three days, and you’re never going to want to make it.

At the end of the day, it’s seven different potato recipes so if you just want to make great mashed potatoes, there it is.

How challenging was making that adjustment to a completely different audience?

a book of chef's garden by farmer Lee Jones

The initial agreed-on market for the book was ambitious home cooks, farmers market people and chefs. I knew that going into it, and at first, I was skeptical because we weren’t in a pandemic with a nationwide home delivery program yet, we were only in restaurants, so why home cooks? But they knew it’s a much broader audience. I knew that going into it we would have to come up with some very simple, at-home, very approachable recipes using unusual ingredients that you can get from the farm or a farmers market if you know a farmer.

I was never a recipe writer, ever, because generally when you’re communicating with chefs, you can communicate via image and a little bit of storytelling and explain a technique and they’ve got it. There aren’t a lot of chefs that comb through recipes to learn how to make something unless it’s really specific. We had to learn how to cook again and it was really slow.

To stop and slow down enough to put the salt on a grams scale, transfer the grams scale to a ridiculous system that the United States somehow goes by to then on paper, from paper goes to computer, computer goes to recipe tester, recipe tester says, ‘nope this doesn’t work,’ and you start over. Or the recipe tester says it does work and then after all of that we do it again for the photograph, but we have to do it via the recipe to make sure that the recipe works.

Order the book here and follow Jamie on Instagram @james_simpson86 and @culinaryvegetableinstitute.

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