'Vegetable Whisperer' Chef Plants The Seeds Of His Own Reinvention

Apr 17, 2017
Originally published on April 18, 2017 1:33 pm

Some people call Jeremy Fox the "vegetable whisperer," the California chef who can coax remarkable flavors out of every part of his produce, even the flowers and leaves that most chefs throw away. One of his famous first-course dishes combines twice-shucked spring peas with macadamia nuts and white chocolate. He has reinvented cooking with vegetables, and in the process, reinvented himself, too.

On Wednesdays, you'll find Fox at the Santa Monica farmer's market, greeting fellow chefs and checking out the veggies at farmer Alex Weiser's stand. He marvels at the Chinese garlic — right out of the field, still packed with dirt. Then he kibitzes with Weiser about some unconventional tubers: oka, yacon , and colorful Peruvian mashua.

"The mashua is almost in the Nasturtium family, so it's like really spicy, almost like horseradish wasabi," says Fox. "But when you cook it, it mellows out a lot."

"How could I not grow that?" Weiser says.

"Plus, it's fun to say mashua," Fox adds.

Weiser says Fox has inspired him to grow unusual vegetables at his farm in the Tehachapi mountains. "He appreciates flavor and uniqueness and texture," says the farmer. "I think he realizes, too, where we farm, we have snowfall and hard frost, which give our crops flavor, that terroir."

Jeremy Fox is a little like those vegetables — with a hard knock life. The 40-year-old grew up in Cleveland and Atlanta eating fast food, and taking far too many prescription medicines for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In college, he was inspired to start cooking after watching the culinary film, "Big Night." He went to culinary school in Charleston, S.C., then worked in a few restaurants in the South before heading to California. There, he eventually landed a job at the Bay Area restaurant, Manresa, where he actually started out in charge of the meat.

"We were getting in whole pigs and trying to work out charcuterie," Fox recalls, "using every part of the pig, nose to tail."

That philosophy shaped Fox's approach to vegetables when he became chef de cuisine at Manresa. The restaurant had its own farm.

"He would take mushrooms, and smoke them and fry them, and so it took on... a bacon-like texture," says chef Kim Alter, who owns Nightbird restaurant in San Francisco. She worked with Fox at Manresa, and then at Ubuntu, where he became head chef.

"He would cook the vegetables like meat," says Alter. "He would truss them, baste them like meat. And it just really opened your eyes as to how you could treat a radish... like a pig. It was pretty cool. And it was all delicious."

Ubuntu was very California: a vegetarian restaurant located below a yoga studio in Napa. One evening in 2008, then-New York Times food critic Frank Bruni came for dinner. He was impressed.

"Jeremy's a superbly talented chef," Bruni says. "He was determined to make that vegetarian experience as enjoyable as a restaurant with all ingredients at its disposal."

Bruni named Ubuntu the country's second best restaurant outside of New York. Here's an excerpt of his review:

"Ubuntu is proof that you can do away with all flesh and hold on to hedonism, at least if you keep enough butter, cream, cheese and wine at hand. Ubuntu is where virtue meets naughty sensuality. It's the Angelina Jolie of restaurants."

Bruni's review changed everything.

Suddenly, the restaurant was packed, but unprepared. Health inspectors shut it down till they got better refrigeration. But the accolades for Fox kept coming. Food & Wine Magazine named him the best new chef of 2008. He was flown around the country for interviews and events.

But the pressure was too much. Fox says he wasn't sleeping or eating. He lost 40 pounds. His marriage to pastry chef Deanie Hickox fell apart. And he self-medicated with a concoction of sleeping pills and amphetamines. "I could have died from the amount I was taking," he says. "I kinda felt like I was on a plane in horrific turbulence, hanging on to the sides. That's pretty much how I felt every hour of every day, for several years, to where everything was impending disaster. Lots of anxiety, lots of paranoia, and I lost my grip on everything. "

Fox left Ubuntu, and pretty much dropped out of the scene.

"Everything got so negative," he recalls. "I'd been told to take a break or get some help. Eventually, it was like, well, let's just end this."

Fox spent a few years in therapy, cleaned up his act, and moved to Los Angeles. He is now head chef at Rustic Canyon restaurant in Santa Monica. He has a new wife, gourmet buyer Rachael Sheridan, and a 16-month-old daughter named Birdie.

Old friends are happy for him. "Now I think he's got this really amazing balance," says Alter. "He's happy, he's doing great food in an environment he loves and that supports him, with a great, beautiful woman and a child."

And Fox has finally finished the cookbook he started when he was at Ubuntu.

"Finding out I was gonna be a dad was a huge motivator," he says, "to create something that this little kid could be proud of."

With his newly published book "On Vegetables" and a fourth nomination for a James Beard Award, chef Jeremy Fox is back.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This dish sounds like a dessert that collided with a salad - spring peas with macadamia nuts and white chocolate. It's just one example of Jeremy Fox's unorthodox yet tasty approach to vegetables.

The California chef just released a highly anticipated cookbook, "On Vegetables: Modern Recipes For The Home Kitchen." NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this profile.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Some people called Jeremy Fox the vegetable whisperer, a chef who can coax remarkable flavors out of every part of his produce, even flowers and leaves most chefs throw away. On Wednesdays, you'll find him at the Santa Monica farmer's market checking out the veggies.

ALEX WEISER: Right out of the field, didn't even clean them.

JEREMY FOX: Still dirty. I like it.

WEISER: Yeah, still got the dirt on them.

FOX: I like them.

WEISER: Yeah (laughter).

DEL BARCO: Fox and Farmer Alex Weiser kibbitz about unconventional tubers - oka, yacon and colorful Peruvian mashua.

FOX: Mashua is actually in the Nasturtium family, so it's, like, really spicy, almost like horseradish wasabi. When you cook it, it mellows out a lot.

WEISER: How could I not grow that now after that?

FOX: Plus, it's fun to say mashua.

WEISER: Yeah (laughter).

DEL BARCO: Weiser says Fox has inspired him to grow unusual vegetables at his farm in the Tehachapi Mountains.

WEISER: He appreciates flavor and uniqueness and texture. I think he realizes, too, where we farm, and we have snowfall and hard frosts, which give our crops flavor, that terroir. You know, when things grow easy and no stress, they don't have the flavor and character.

DEL BARCO: Jeremy Fox is a little like those vegetables with a hard-knock life. The 40-year-old grew up in Cleveland and Atlanta eating fast food and taking far too many prescription meds for his ADD.

After culinary school, he worked in a few restaurants in the South before heading to California. There, he eventually landed a job at the Bay Area restaurant Manresa. He actually started out in charge of the meat.

FOX: We were getting whole pigs and trying to work out charcuterie and using every part of the pig, nose to tail.

DEL BARCO: That philosophy shaped Fox's approach to vegetables when he became chef de cuisine at Manresa. The restaurant had its own farm.

KIM ALTER: He would take mushrooms and smoke them and fry them. And so it took on, like, a bacon-like texture.

DEL BARCO: Chef Kim Alter worked with Fox at Manresa and then at Ubuntu, where he became head chef.

ALTER: And he would cook the vegetables like meat. He would truss them, you know, baste them like meat. And it just really opened your eyes to how you could treat a radish (laughter) comparable to, like, a pig, you know? And it was - it was pretty cool, and it was all delicious.

DEL BARCO: Ubuntu was very California, a vegetarian restaurant located below a yoga studio in Napa. One evening in 2008, then New York Times food critic Frank Bruni came for dinner.

FRANK BRUNI: Jeremy's a superbly talented chef, and he was determined to make that vegetarian experience as enjoyable as the experience at a restaurant that had all ingredients at its disposal.

DEL BARCO: He named Ubuntu the country's second-best restaurant outside of New York. Bruni reads an excerpt of his review for us.

BRUNI: (Reading) Ubuntu is proof that you can do away with all flesh and hold onto hedonism, at least if you keep enough butter, cream, cheese and wine at hand. Ubuntu is where virtue meets naughty sensuality. It's the Angelina Jolie of restaurants.

DEL BARCO: Bruni's review changed everything. Suddenly the restaurant was packed, but unprepared. Health inspectors shut it down till they got better refrigeration. The accolades kept coming. Food and Wine magazine named Fox the best new chef of 2008. He was flown around for interviews and events, but the pressure was too much.

He says he wasn't sleeping or eating. He lost 40 pounds. His marriage to pastry chef Deanie Hickox fell apart. He self-medicated with a concoction of sleeping pills and amphetamines.

FOX: Could have died from the amount I was taking. I kind of felt like I was on a plane in horrific turbulence, hanging onto the sides. Like, that's pretty much how I felt every hour of every day for several years, to where everything was impending disaster - lots of anxiety, lots of paranoia and lost my grip on everything.

DEL BARCO: Fox left Ubuntu and pretty much dropped out of the scene.

FOX: Everything got so negative that I feel like I had been told to, like, take a break or get some help. And I think eventually it was just like, yeah, it's - you know, let's just end this.

DEL BARCO: He spent a few years in therapy, cleaned up his act and moved to L.A. He's now head chef at Rustic Canyon restaurant in Santa Monica. He has a new wife, gourmet buyer Rachel Sheridan, and a baby daughter they named Birdie. Old friends like Kim Alter are happy for him.

ALTER: It's perfect, and now I think he's got this really amazing balance. He's happy. He's doing great food in a environment he loves that supports him with a great, beautiful woman.

DEL BARCO: Fox cringes at some of the things he did and said before finding that balance, and he's finally finished the cookbook he started when he was at Ubuntu.

FOX: Finding out I was going to be a dad was a huge motivator to create something that, you know, this little kid could maybe proud of one day and be like, oh, my dad made a cookbook.

DEL BARCO: With his book on vegetables and a fourth nomination for a James Beard Award, chef Jeremy Fox is back. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF J.S.T.A.R.S.' "TRIPPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.