The Dirt on Edible Dirt

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A dish of baby radishes served in a flowerpot with "dirt" made of coffee and cardamom, by chef Michael Voltaggio at The Langham, ca. 2010. Photo: CHOW

What's that, you say? Chefs are putting dirt on plates and telling us to eat it? Why yes, yes they are, and it's often quite delicious. This not-exactly-new trend of whimsically portraying garden-to-table cuisine by way of veggies sitting in edible "dirt" has popped up plenty in San Francisco and L.A., but only recently did SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer take note of the trend via two dishes at Masa's and Atelier Crenn (chef Dominique Crenn has served something similar at Luce for a couple of years, and demonstrated the technique on Iron Chef America as well). Bauer doesn't acknowledge the influential dish that preceded them all, or the genesis of this trend in the Bay Area, so we thought it was time we put together a quick time-line and give credit where credit is due.

1978
Acclaimed French chef Michel Bras, after running in the countryside, is inspired to create a dish he calls Gargouillou, while he is working at his parents' restaurant Lou Mazac in Laguiole, France. The dish evolves, and by 1992, when he is running his eponymous restaurant in Laguiole, he serves it using 40 to 50 different seasonal vegetables, flowers, and herbs scattered on a plate, and as a way of making the presentation reflect the landscape, he sets them in a "dirt" that he makes from brioche crumbs, dried black olive, and tomato powder.

2006
René Redzepi begins serving dishes inspired by Bras of vegetables with edible dirt at Noma in Copenhagen, including one in which radishes are buried in dirt in an actual flower pot (ca. 2008).

2007
Acknowledging the influence of Bras and inspired by Redzepi's work at Noma, David Kinch creates a similar dish at Manresa in Los Gatos that he titles "Into the vegetable garden..." and it becomes a signature of the restaurant. Kinch makes his soil using roasted chicory root, parsnip, and dehydrated potato.

2008
At Coi, Daniel Patterson creates a dish called Abstraction of Garden in Early Winter, also inspired by Bras. Kinch uses his "soil" in a cabbage dish on Iron Chef America.

Luce opens at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco, where chef Dominique Crenn creates various "jardin" dishes for each season, also featuring a dirt that includes black olives.

2009
The New York Times writes a whole piece about the dish, as Bras created it, and its spawn.

At Ubuntu, Jeremy Fox does a spin using the seasonal garden, and in one spring preparation creates his dirt using hazelnuts and beet juice.

2010
More versions riffing on Bras's original pop up, at The Langham in LA, where Michael Voltaggio riffed on Redzepi's presentation, serving radishes in a flowerpot and "soil" of cardamom and coffee; at Commis where, as Bauer notes, James Syhabout "created a carrot salad with soil made from cocoa, burnt hazelnut flour, sugar and seaweed"; at Meadowood, where Christopher Kostow made the dirt for a radish and carrot dish out of rye breadcrumbs and salt; at Marlowe in San Francisco where Jennifer Puccio makes the soil for her radishes using olives; and at Gilt in New York, where chef Justin Bogle featured a dish using a "dirt" of charred onion ash and mushrooms.

Time Magazine takes note of the trend. In LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold writes, "It may be illegal to open a serious restaurant this year without an exotically seasoned carrot cooked sous vide or a nod to David Kinch's dish of vegetables with edible 'soil' at Manresa." Also, David Kinch takes home the Beard Award for Best Chef: Pacific.

2011
Crenn's dish continues to evolve at her new restaurant, Atelier Crenn, where Michael Bauer makes note of it. She also plays with dirt and moss-like forms in a dessert that Bauer also seems impressed with.

And Gregory Short at Masa's is simultaneously doing a Bras-inspired vegetable dish which Bauer describes thusly: "His soil includes ground hazelnuts, scattered on the white plate with a square log of sugar pea souffle, onion soubise, dots of carrot puree and the smallest radishes, carrots, green onions and turnips that I’ve ever seen."

Earlier: Putting the Feet Before the Belly: How Pork Trotters Became Such a Thing [Grub Street]