Flavor: Understanding Seed to Service

Originally printed in the May 2024 issue of Produce Business.

For this column, we are going to go off menu a bit because ironically, flavor does not start on the menu. Or in the kitchen. Or at the distributor. Or even in the field.

Flavor starts with the development of a seed. Development, growing, testing, tasting. Re-developing, growing, testing, re-tasting. But I am getting ahead of myself.

As a chef for 30 years, I always looked to my suppliers for the best flavor, the items that were in season, the specialty product. And they always delivered to my specs, the sweetest corn, flavorful heirloom tomatoes, and new items like finger limes and early shishitos.

I thought I had it going on because I knew my suppliers and my farmers, and the product was on time, great quality and delicious.

But what if my produce could be better? More flavorful, and with a longer shelf life. What if my produce could be more sustainable by requiring less water when grown, or it matured more quickly in a greater variety of climates and growing conditions? What if my product had a healthier nutrient value? All these factors are determined WAY before the produce I bought ever got to my supplier.

As a chef, I started to realize that the process of bringing a new and often improved produce item to market can take anywhere from two to 15 years, depending on factors WAY beyond my original considerations.

Bringing a new produce item to the foodservice market involves several stages, each with its own timeline and processes. The first phase for the seed team is research and development. Seed development begins here, with breeders selecting traits such as flavor, yield, disease resistance and shelf life. This can take one to three years.

Then, seed development and testing occur for three to five years. To understand this phase, let’s go back to school lessons and summon up Gregor Mendel, and the experiments he conducted with pea plants. Mendel’s three fundamental principles of inheritance provide the theoretical framework for modern plant breeding practices.

These principles leverage genetic variation and the principles of segregation, independent assortment, and dominance to develop crop varieties with desirable traits, which may contribute to menu flavor and durability, in addition to potentially providing solutions for global food security and agricultural sustainability.

Once these traits have been determined, the field trials begin. Seeds are planted to evaluate agronomic performance, yield and adaptability. This can take one to two years. The next phase could be regulatory approval, depending on the item. Regulatory approval, if necessary, can take up to two years.

Once the seed has been determined to be viable, there is the sowing and development for commercial production. Farmers grow the new produce item according to established best practices, with an emphasis on quality control and consistency. Building volume and market support can be another one to two years.

It is time for greater collaboration among chefs, growers and seed developers.

The next stage is the market launch into retail and foodservice markets. Outreach and education of a new market can take up to a year of dedicated marketing and targeting.

The final stage is menu integration. Using the DEDVIM approach to menu development can add another year or two to the final launch of a new product. The DEDVIM development process when used for foodservice is modified to stand for Define, Explore, Develop, Validate, Implement and Measure.

So, we just spent seven to 10 years trying to get a new seed on the menu, but does it really work? Absolutely.

This process can change the trajectory of a produce item. Brussels sprouts are a great example of what happens when a flavor flaw is identified in a produce item and is corrected through breeding.

While working at Novartis (now called Syngenta) in the 1990s, Dutch Scientist Dr. Hans van Doorn was able to isolate the naturally occurring chemical compound in modern Brussels sprouts that made them bitter. Through many years of plot trials and cross-pollinating heirloom varieties with high-yielding modern plants, the best traits of the plant evolved and produced the ubiquitous Brussels sprouts that we know on menus today.

Other opportunities are emerging with seed companies such as Enza Zaden and its sweet and petite Tribelli peppers.

HZPC, the Dutch potato seed company is developing potatoes with a higher tolerance for arid conditions. Bayer Vegetable Seed has developed a broccoli with a significantly longer stalk that allows for easier harvest and a potential new menu item in the stalk flesh.

Chefs are also partnering with seed companies to craft menu-specific items that fit into their geography and aesthetic.

Dan Barber collaborated with Row 7 Seed Company to develop new vegetable varieties specifically bred for flavor and culinary performance.

Chef José Andrés partnered with Seminis Vegetable Seeds to develop a new variety of tomato called the “Yola” tomato. This tomato was bred for its sweetness, juiciness and vibrant color.

These collaborations highlight the potential for chefs and seed companies to work together to create produce with superior flavor and quality for specific applications.

As we look at the menu, let’s start looking even further back in the value chain and start celebrating the breeders of the seeds that make our menus possible. I suggest it is time for greater collaboration among chefs, growers and seed developers, all working together in the most effective and delicious ways possible, from seed to service.

Jill Overdorf is The Produce Ambassador, a culinary translator, connecting field, food and fork through education and advocacy for good food.