Chef Dan Barber's new venture, Row 7, may look like genetic modification on the outside: after all, the company is peddling special seeds that grow into new varieties of vegetables that no one has ever seen or heard of before. But this isn't genetic modification at all, but rather an innovative, exciting way to bring out the most in our vegetables naturally. Built jointly by chefs and plant breeders, Row 7 is a seed company seeking to breed the most delicious versions of our favorite vegetables using traditional techniques, thus ensuring that a recipe gets its start, not in the kitchen, but in the soil.
It might be strange to fathom, but breeding for deliciousness actually goes against what breeders have long been looking for. With their earnings dependent on the ability of their vegetables to make it to supermarket aisles – often at the other end of the country – hardiness, rather than tastiness, has often been the priority.
“Too often, breeders are asked to select for yield, shelf life, and uniformity at the expense of good food, nutrition, and our environment,” write the folks at Row 7. “What if, instead, we started with what’s delicious?”
The Roots of Row 7
Row 7 got its start seven years ago, when Barber, chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and author of “The Third Plate,” challenged vegetable breeder Professor Michael Mazourek of Cornell University to create the most flavorful butternut squash he could. The result was the diminutive honeynut squash, now available at Trader Joe’s and other retailers. The super-sweet vegetable doesn’t need the maple syrup or honey so often added to its larger, blander cousin; it's rich and intense all on its own.
This simple challenge – and success – blossomed into Row 7. Collaborating with seedsman Matthew Goldfarb, Barber and Mazourek launched seven additional vegetable varieties, each more intriguing than the last. These include the Habanada Pepper, with all the floral aroma of a habanero but none of the heat, as well as the Badger Flame beet, boasting the flavor and color of a beet but none of the earthiness that so often turns people off of this otherwise sweet root veggie.
The Upstate Abundance Potato is so creamy and nutty it doesn’t need butter – which makes it a healthier choice too. And that's not the only way that Row 7 seeds make for more nutritious vegetables: Barber explains that, in selecting for flavor, breeders are often automatically selecting for an improved nutritional content. The rich, sweet flavor of the squash, for example, also points to a more beta carotene.
“It’s nature’s way of telling us what we should be eating.”
Row 7 Stretching Towards the Sky
The Row 7 team relies traditional breeding techniques to bring out the best in the genetic information already present in the vegetable, or as Mazourek explains it, a continuation of the "dynamic tradition" of plant breeding, with a "modern twist."
“We utilize time-proven, powerfully elegant techniques of cross-pollination and selection complemented by modern technology, but we draw a clear line at all forms of genetic engineering," says Mazourek.
"Plants naturally have tens of thousands of genes with complex interactions that affect productivity, regional adaptation and durable resistance to pests and disease," he continues. "The changes we seek in the food system aren't simply fixed by tweaking one single gene; if they were we would have accomplished this years ago.”
Today, Row 7 is actively collaborating with more than 60 chefs across the country, including Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se and Grant Achatz of Alinea. And not only are these veggies finding their way into the kitchens of the nation's top chefs; they’re also available for purchase online, so that home gardeners can take a crack at growing (and cooking) these novel vegetables.
“Row 7 was created to improve the recipe for our food from the ground up,” explains Barber. “By pairing chefs and breeders in the field and kitchen, we’re seeking to change the food system, developing new varieties of vegetables and grains that improve our diets and landscapes.”