Cafe Society

Rachel Kesley, exec chef of WaterCourse Foods, on produce-driven menus, vegetarianism and her fascination with figs

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Culinary inspirations: First and foremost, I'd have to say my grandmothers -- both of them. I'm from the South, where "grandma" is synonymous with down-home good cookin' and good company. They both had farms and cooked with all the things that they grew. My summers were filled with shucking corn, shelling beans and weighing bell peppers to sell off the front porch. They taught me that food and laughter go hand in hand. When Grandma was cooking, everyone came over. Whether it was chicken-fried steak or banana pudding, food was the center of all of our family and social gatherings, and that, to me, was pretty spectacular.

Six words to describe your food: Seasonal, colorful, non-traditional, comforting, layered and balanced.

Ten words to describe you: Passionate, focused, competitive, caring, teacher, spontaneous, energetic, fun-loving, intentional and adventurous.

Favorite ingredient: Because I work with a menu that's driven by seasonal vegetables, my favorite ingredient tends to be what's available at the time. Right now I'm loving Brussels sprouts, blood oranges and mushrooms. Six months ago, I couldn't get enough watermelon -- mostly grilled -- and I'm currently moving into an asparagus and fig phase. Actually, if I could cook with figs every day of my life, I probably would. Figs are so versatile and delicious in both savory and sweet dishes; the possibilities are endless.

Best recent food find: Persimmons. I'm a little embarrassed to say that I had never had one until a month and a half ago. One of my purveyors, who's always turning me on to great things, talked me into buying a case. I was like yeah, sure, why not? This should be interesting. I cut into it and was totally blown away by its sweetness while still holding a tomato-like quality. I made some samosas with peas, potatoes and persimmons that I was really excited about.

Most overrated ingredient: Chipotle peppers. Ever since Bobby Flay popped up, smoked jalapeños have been everywhere. I love the food and flavors from the Southwest and south of the border, but I've found so many other amazing chiles and flavors that have so much more depth than the chipotle. I just think their time has come and gone.

Most underrated ingredient: I use cashews in almost everything. In vegan cooking, you have to get innovative, so when certain recipes or methods traditionally call for dairy, cream or even butter, it's time to get creative. Cashews take on the flavor of whatever you're cooking. When you make a cream out of them, either with stock or water and sugar, you can do anything from thickening soups to making a "crème" brûlée or even cheese. It's definitely one of the most amazing and versatile ingredients that I use on a daily basis.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson