Amanda Freitag is an accomplished, New York-based chef, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, a TV personality and cookbook author. She is a judge on the popular US Food Network’s television cooking game show Chopped, a competitor on Iron Chef and Next Iron Chef, and a co-host of American Diner Revival.
Next, as part of her involvement in The Culinary Diplomacy Project, Amanda is heading to the UK to share a taste of American culture and cuisine. Whilst in London, she has the honour of being the 2019 Show Ambassador at The London Produce Show and Conference. Contributing editor Gill McShane spoke with Amanda to understand how she might influence and inspire the fresh fruit and vegetable trade representatives attending the event on June 5-7, 2019.
Q. Amanda, we are delighted that you are the Show Ambassador this year! Why did you decide to take this opportunity, and what do you hope to bring to the table in your role as ambassador and as one of the chefs cooking in the Live Demonstration Kitchen?
A. I really wanted to have the opportunity to show our pride in US produce and the extent to which chefs in the US are focused on that pride. I want to demonstrate how ingredient-driven chefs really are in the US, and explain the many stable farmer relationships with chef-driven restaurants.
My message will be about how chefs are devising their menus in terms of working with many more fruits and vegetables, and making those the focus of the plate. In the US, chefs are changing the way they look at food; we are considering our carbon footprint, using less meat, paying more attention to over-fishing, using more veg, and getting more creative in the way that we look at the plate.
We’re not just putting the meat-based proteins in the centre; now we’re using more vegetables and less proteins.
Q. I understand that you are working with the US Embassy in London to support the development of a food perception programme to promote US food in the UK, and to debunk some people’sperceptions about American cuisine. Can you reveal more about this campaign, and your role within it?
A. The campaign is via The Culinary Diplomacy Project, which is a non-profit organisation founded by Lauren Bernstein, with whom I’ve worked since she ran a programme, called The Diplomatic Culinary Partnership through the US State Department. The idea is to exchange food ideas and creativity from chefs in the US to chefs all over the world. We have just been to Israel; next we’re going to the UK, and in the fall [autumn], myself and other American chefs are going to Jordan to cook with Syrians in the refugee camps.
The goal is to show that American food is more than just hamburgers and French fries. Our chefs have a great passion for food, for cooking with fresh, local ingredients and for creating farmer-supported menus. Also, our cuisine is very regional; there is not one blanket US cuisine. We have regional styles from the Northwest, the Southeast and California, etc. Across the country, everywhere you go has its own flavour, and there’s always a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables featured in those dishes.
For example, San Francisco serves a very famous seafood stew called cioppino, which is almost like a French bouillabaisse. It’s very popular in San Francisco. It’s always served with sourdough bread, which is a signature bread in San Francisco. It has a tomato base and features lots of different seafood. It’s a very rich broth that’s a little spicy.
If you travel to the South or to New Orleans, you’ll find dishes like gumbo and jambalaya, which have a lot of French influence. In the South, there is also a fried chicken dish called hot chicken, which is served with coleslaw or mash potatoes, black-eyed peas and salad. Then, if you travel to Miami, you’ll eat a lot of Latin foods, like tropical fish, ceviche, and coconut-based dishes, as well as mangos and pineapples.
As for my presence in this programme and at The London Produce Show, I will be talking about my career during which I have touched upon so many different US cuisines that I’ve tried, worked with and love. I can only speak from my experiences but I do travel a lot, and I do get inspired by the food around the country. These influences definitely show up in my menus, and in the food that I cook.
[Editor’s note: The goal of the US Embassy food perception programme is to dispel the myths circulating around the UK about US food products and American food culture. Working with prominent US chefs, the programme will celebrate America’s culinary diversity and regional variety, while promoting regional specialties, including high-quality, locally sourced food and agricultural products.
The mission of The Culinary Diplomacy Project is to promote mutual understanding among people of different cultures through the power of global culinary exchange. Working with accomplished chefs, The Culinary Diplomacy Project travels to destinations around the world to engage communities, governments, NGOs and the media with a focus on culinary cultural exchange.
Following each international trip, the chefs engage with American audiences by participating in events and social media programmes designed to share their experiences. Through these activities, the project acts as a resource, builds networks and brings communities together in an effort to bridge the cultural divide.]
Q. Will you be promoting any US-grown fresh produce in particular through the food perception programme in the UK?
A. It’s more about cooking from ingredients that are fruits and vegetables, and creating menus around those produce items. It’s about how to use fruits and vegetables better, and how to use them more. We’re very lucky in the US; we want to share the fact that because the US has extensive farm land and numerous growers, we’re cooking a lot fresher than probably the rest of the world thinks we are.
Q. What’s your take on the food scene in the US with regards to the availability of fresh produce? Clearly, there is a great number of burger joints and a lot of fast-food options. Do you think that many US consumers have jumped on board the health/plant-based train yet, as they have in the UK with the rise of veganism, vegetarianism, flexitarianism, and even ‘reducetarianism’?
A. It’s very similar [to the UK]. The whole trend is being embraced not only by US chefs but by the wellness community — people who are much more health-conscious, and those who really want to know where their food is coming from. The trend goes across many age ranges too. Anybody aged between 30 years old and 45 years old is looking at their health, how they eat and how to change their habits. It’s about longevity for yourself and the environment.
Now you can find a lot more US restaurants that have either vegetable menus or vegetable-focused menus, or they offer a lot more vegetable options. They are not vegetarian per se, but there are many more veg-focused restaurants that are doing really well.
This is happening in New York, and from travelling around the US, I see this trend also popping up in places that perhaps have been more meat-centric in the past. Wherever there are young chefs who are creative, you will find menus that are breaking the boundaries with new and interesting vegetable dishes.
Q. Likewise, what do you think of the London food scene currently? What are your thoughts on how it has changed over the years and the use of produce on restaurant menus?
A. That’s a great question, because I haven’t been to London in so long, and I’m looking forward to coming. I do remember how much I loved the dairy in the UK; how different it was and the richness of the yoghurt. Although I’ve not been to the UK for 25 years, obviously I follow the food scene through social media, cookbooks and the chefs that I love in the UK.
We are working on our itinerary for London, but we’ll definitely visit The River Café, [one of the branches of] Ottolenghi, and the markets. We will host a masterclass at Westminster Kingsway College [a culinary institute], and we are going to Manchester.
Q. Who are your favourite UK chefs?
A. I’ve always been a huge fan of the women who run The River Café in London [chefs Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray]. I just went on a trip to Israel, so currently I’m obsessed with Yotam Ottolenghi. I’ve always been a Jamie Oliver fan, and I’m huge fan of The Great British Bake Off. I follow Heston Blumenthaland Fergus Henderson too. So, all the top chefs. I’m not so aware of the younger chefs as yet, but I hope to find out more [on the UK trip].
I like the Mediterranean feel to the cooking by Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi. The way they cook at The River Café is always in the Mediterranean style too, which is very ingredient-based, ingredient-driven and ingredient-inspired.
Q. What do you think is the potential to include more fresh fruits and vegetables on plates both in the UK and internationally, and why?
A. The potential is high right now because chefs always want to be on-trend, and they always want to give customers what they want. A lot of this [trend] has come from what customers were asking for, and what they want more of. Their demands always indicate how menus change and how chefs cook.
Chefs are food activists essentially. They want to use more fruits and vegetables; they want to have a fresher style to their menus, and they want to attract the customers who want those things. On the flip-side, it’s also about chefs satisfying their own creative side, wanting to compete and to become a part of the [plant-based] movement.
The idea of making a head of cauliflower taste as good as a prime rib is a real skill challenge, and that’s fun for chefs to take on.
Q. What do you see as the obstacles to getting more produce on plates? How can these be overcome, in your opinion?
A. It’s about training your cooks and educating your customers – if they are shy to trying new dishes. It’s a little more labour-intensive to work with vegetables than to fill a plate with a piece of meat. There is more cutting and prepping involved, so it’s more detail-oriented than grilling a piece of meat, for example. There are a few obstacles but nothing that’s impossible, for sure.
From a customer point of view, they really want more produce on plates; it’s the customer who is looking for it. The only obstacle is variety, as people always want menus to change and to try specials. When you’re working seasonally, that can be difficult to do sometimes. In winter, for example, when squash and potatoes are plentiful, that could get a little dull, so you have to jazz it up.
Q. What would you say to UK chefs, foodservice, hospitality and/or catering operators to inspire them to incorporate and celebrate more produce in their dishes?
A. First of all, it’s very appealing to your customer, and economically it’s great because vegetables cost less than meat. Also, considering the footprint on the environment, it’s a plus to use less meat or less fish, and on a health level, it’s good for everybody across the board to eat more fruit and veg.
Overall, I think you need to be more aware of your impact as a restaurant or as a chef on issues such as food waste and supporting local farmers, etc. I don’t think you can run a restaurant or a foodservice operation without thinking about that any more.
Q. Can you describe the best produce-based dishes you have eaten recently, where you tasted them, and why you liked them?
A. Well that’s fun, because I’ve been eating a lot of produce dishes lately! In Israel, there was a spread of vegetables on the breakfast buffet every morning, with chopped cucumbers, peppers, celery and tomatoes. We had a Mediterranean salad with our breakfast, which is such a great way to start the day. At lunch, there was another big display of food on the table, with whole roasted cauliflower heads, whole roasted eggplants [aubergine] — it was so delicious!
Recently, I ate at a restaurant in New York that served big ‘Hen of the Woods’ (or Maitake) mushrooms that were roasted whole and presented as the centre of the plate. It’s really dramatic in a restaurant to present veg that way, and it was so rich and juicy that it was like eating a piece of meat.
Big pieces of vegetables that are roasted and seasoned well are really succulent. For me, that is so satisfying, and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything at all.
Q. What are your own favourite ways to cook and prepare vegetables?
A. You can coax a lot of flavour out of vegetables when you roast them. I like to get some caramelisation on the outside of a cauliflower, or a really nice seer on a mushroom because that changes the flavour. I like to take the simplest of vegetables, like broccoli or Brussels sprouts, and seer them in the pan until they become really toasty and nutty. If you play around and experiment, you can totally change the flavour profile just by using a different cooking technique.
Also, I like to think about the natural flavours of the product and bring those out. I think broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts — all those cruciferous vegetables — are really nutty, so they pare well with lemon or olive oil. Then you can add a nut or a seed to enhance that flavour further. Or, if I’m working with a sweet potato, which happens to be sweet, I might balance that with something spicy.
Q. From your Instagram profile, you clearly like to cook with and eat lots of colourful fresh produce! Which fresh fruits and vegetables are you enjoying the most at the moment, and why?
A. It’s late spring in New York, and I’m very much in tune with the market and the seasons. Right now, I’m obsessed with asparagus because it’s fresh. It’s so tender. I want to eat asparagus with my eggs in the morning or in salads. I want to eat it raw or with Parmesan cheese. I’m embracing it!
We also have Ramps, which are wild onions that are in season right now. They’re like a very small leek or a scallion [spring onion]. You can grill them and eat the whole thing; you can take off the bottom and pickle them; or you can make a purée or pesto with the leafy green tops. The very bright spring green vegetables are what I’m cooking with right now.
When it comes to eating root to tip, I think it’s very important to use every part of a vegetable and to not waste it. Beetroot, in particular, is a good example. For so many years, we just ate the beet part and the leaves were discarded, but the leaves are delicious. You can use every part of most vegetables and you get so much more in terms of the cooking choices.
Q. Do you know yet which recipes you will be demonstrating at The London Produce Show, and which fresh fruits and vegetables you will be showcasing?
A. We want to showcase some interesting produce items from the US and to demonstrate them in their best light. I have some recipes from my book,The Chef Next Door: A Pro Chef’s Recipes for Fun, Fearless Home Cooking, that I would love to use, but depending on our produce selection I may have to create a new recipe or revise a recipe. There are so many options right now!
[Editor’s note: Since this interview, it has been confirmed that Amanda will create a classic American Waldorf salad, featuring California raisins, California walnuts, US-grown apples and US-grown red seedless table grapes.]
Q. As an accomplished chef having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, what would you say have been the biggest influences on your career, especially when it comes to your use of fresh produce? How have your experiences had a lasting impact on how you view, prepare and use fruits and vegetables?
A. Early on in my career, I worked for a woman who really taught me about seasonality here in New York, as we were close to Union Square Greenmarket. After that, I had a great opportunity to work at a restaurant in Paris, where at the end of the day there would be absolutely nothing left in the refrigerator and every morning all the ingredients would come in fresh. We had whole fish, chicken with their feathers still on, entire carcasses of meat, and all types of vegetables. Everything would come in that day and nothing would be left over. That was fascinating to me.
Of course, this restaurant had the ability to write its menu every day. They would talk to their farmers, purveyors, butchers and hunters the night before or that morning, and they’d plan the menu around what they had. Obviously it was a high-end restaurant, and not everyone can do that, but the experience had a big impact on my thinking in terms of only using what you have in front of you.
Then in Italy, I learnt how the produce, dairy or fruit from a region will dictate its style of food. In northern Italy, the food is creamier and more cheese- and pasta-based, with lighter vegetables. While in southern Italy, where they grow capers, tomatoes, eggplants and spicy peppers, they have bright bowls of spicy and sharp flavours.
Across the different regions of Italy, the food is taken from what’s grown in their backyard. That’s why southern Italian food tastes different to northern Italian food, while that tastes different from Roman food, which features a lot of artichokes because they are grown in that region. That was a big learning experience for me.
Q. Are you including more fresh produce in your dishes these days? Are you using any for the first time?
A. I’m eating more produce, definitely. Especially when I cook for myself at home, my meals are way more vegetable-based these days. I call myself a ‘closet vegetarian’ because I eat a lot of vegetables over heavier meat. I like the way it makes me feel.
Eating is part of my job whether I’m travelling, taking part in events or doing cooking shows, so when I’m at home, and I can control what I’m eating, I like to eat clean. I like to feel good and to have that opportunity to reset. That doesn’t mean less flavour, rather making vegetablesthe focus of the plate.
Q. Which are the next trending fresh fruit and vegetables, in your opinion?
A. Cauliflower has been trending for a while; from eating it whole to shredding it and calling it cauliflower rice, or using cauliflower in the crust of a pizza. After being in Israel, I think eggplant could have a big influence because it’s really satisfying. It can be eaten roasted on its own; it can add a really beautiful starchiness to a sauce, or it can be puréed.
I think eggplant is a vegetable that is under utilised, for sure. It’s inexpensive, and we have it in great abundance, so I think the humble eggplant is one vegetable that will get used a lot more in the future.
Q. As a frequent judge on the US culinary game show Chopped, how difficult is it to judge the contestants when they are using baskets that are filled with some crazy produce items?
A. Judging the contestants is difficult no matter what products they are using, and it’s a really interesting learning experience for all of us — the chefs that compete, us as judges, and anyone that’s a viewer — to learn about these ‘new’ products.
We source fruits and vegetables from around the world to surprise and stump the chefs. Many times, the judges have never seen certain products either, so we all learn the different ways to cook them. Whether it’s a chayote from Mexico or a durian fruit from south east Asia, the bitter melon that’s popular in Japanese cuisine, or the jackfruit, it’s a learning experience for everyone, and it gives us the inspiration to try something different.
Even if the contestants don’t know the vegetable, we can judge them on how they look at it, how they related it to a fruit or vegetable that they did know, and how they manipulated it.
Q. How would you approach a fruit or vegetable with which you’re not familiar personally?
A. If I had a mystery basket and there was a fruit or vegetable that I’ve never ever seen before, like, let’s say, a dragon fruit, I’d cut it open and taste it. That’s the only way. You’ve got to cut into it, shave off a piece, taste it and start to cook with it to see how it reacts. Eating, tasting and experimenting is the best way to learn about any fruit or vegetable.
Q. Likewise, you’ve competed in various Iron Chef competitions … how tough is it to not only go up against the best but to formulate a great dish on the spot?
A. As a chef, I work really well under pressure. Actually, I thrive in that environment! Chefs are all very competitive too, so the clock, the time frame and the mystery ingredients are great equalisers.
Once you’re under that kind of pressure, you have to perform, and you have to get creative very quickly. I like it and I find it very interesting. The first thing that pops into my head is usually what I go with. Also, as an experienced chef, I’m lucky to have many different recipes and experiences to pull from and apply.
Sometimes young chefs have a hard time in competitions because they don’t have a lot of experiences or much traveling to pull from. They may look at an eggplant and have never really used it before, whereas I’ve eaten eggplant in Sicily, Israel and France, and seen it used in various cuisines. Those memories are really helpful in competitions.
Q. Amanda, you always seem to be testing the water in food via your involvement in TV shows, chef competitions andrestaurants, etc. What could your next projects include?
A. I want to do something with a teaching element, maybe cooking classes. I love to teach, and I forget that people want to know more about the basics of cooking than the fancy recipes. For example, when I teach a cooking class, if I cut an onion and go straight to cooking it, people will ask me to go back so they can watch how I cut that onion.
It’s fun to teach, and that knowledge has to be passed down. Also, people like experiences. Rather than just going out to dinner, they want to experience being with the chef, and to be a part of the action.
Q. Finally, what do you see as the future of food, in general?
A. In relation to The London Produce Show, the future lies with educating people about where their food comes from, how to use ingredients, and how to cook. If we want people to eat more produce, like vegetables, they have to know how to cook them.
Equally, we need to teach people that cooking fresh food at home is better than ordering out or getting fast food. Yes, that might have to happen sometimes because you’re a busy family, but cooking with and cooking for your family — and sitting down at the table together — are all really important; for health purposes, for social interaction, and for creating experiences.
Kids love to cook so much, and they can be the catalyst for bringing the family together at the table. People are interested in food, but sometimes they just don’t know how to approach cooking it. We must teach people how to cook simply, and inspire them to get in the kitchen and to make some mistakes. People just need to try, and to not be afraid.
Jim Prevor, Produce Business Editor-in-Chief and London Produce Show and Conference founder, offered this on Amanda’s arrival at the show on his PerishablePundit.com website:
Amanda Freitag is a superstar in the American Culinary Scene. In fact, at home the Pundit scored major points in attracting Amanda to the show as the Junior Pundit, Primo, aka William, has been watching Chopped most of his life.
Produce is a big winner for chefs. We have done a lot of presentations at the Culinary Institute of America for professional chefs, and we have seen it first-hand: Chefs are constantly berated – use less fat, less salt, less meat, etc. — but produce, beautiful, colorful, delicious fruits and vegetables — this is one area where chefs are urged to use more!
The challenge for the produce industry is how to transition the excitement over veg-centric cuisine, which one sees among the chefs at white tablecloth restaurants, to a broader consumer base.
For the typical dinner house, the consumer value is driven by the protein – how big and tasty is the steak. Although it is true that produce is less expensive than protein, it is also true that starch is cheaper than produce.
So for the great masses in America, the dish is often a big chunk of protein to establish value, a mountain of mashed potatoes to fill the plate and the stomach and two sprigs of asparagus and a cherry tomato for a little color.
Our challenge is to change the consumer value perception so chefs are free to be veg-centric.
We are honored to have Amanda Freitag, Chef, Food Network star and an inspirational spokesperson for American produce, as our Show Ambassador. In addition to doing a demonstration of her cooking, she will be participating in the Thought-Leader panel and cutting the ribbon to open the show.
Come to London, hear Amanda’s perspective and be a part of #CelebratingFresh.