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Chef Renee Erickson: The Produce Innovation Award 2014

Photo: Jose Mandojana

Chef Renee Erickson wins The 2014 Produce Innovation Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.

The best veggie cooking in the country right now isn't focused on exotic produce. Esoteric ingredients—foraged from the ditches, scraped from undersea rocks—can be interesting, even eye-opening. But the really exciting and satisfying plant-based dishes use everyday produce in ways that make you feel like you're eating them for the very first time. This is one of Renee Erickson's culinary gifts, on display at The Whale Wins in Seattle.

The success of Erickson's vegetable plates—which account for one-quarter of the menu at The Whale Wins—comes in part from her ability to merge soaring creativity with disciplined restraint. Erickson was inspired by Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurants in London (whose cookbooks turned Ottolenghi into a household name in America). "They have a beautiful way of cooking and composing vegetables, combining three or four vegetables in a way that feels new and fresh but is also very simple," she says.

While roasted cauliflower has been the "it" side dish of the last two years, Erickson won't deny her guests the pleasure just because it's found on menus nationwide. But she puts her unique spin on it, pairing gorgeously browned florets with mustard seeds and pickled beet, which makes sense when you eat it. Then she adds coconut vinaigrette and toasted coconut, which you just do not see coming. The dish works incredibly well. Instinctively, Erickson knows exactly how much to embellish an ingredient to make it sing without overdoing things in a silly way.

Like most of the veggie dishes at The Whale Wins, the roasted cauliflower is served at room temp. "Some things are better hot, obviously," says Erickson. "But I don't think most things are. If they're at ambient temperature, you're able to taste them better."

Beyond her compositional brilliance, Erickson's cooking benefits from the most primitive of cooking techniques: open flame. A wood-fired oven is the centerpiece of the kitchen at The Whale Wins. Stoked with eastern Washington applewood to 700°, it creates magical alchemy with roasted veggies. "We were more surprised by the vegetables coming out of our wood oven than anything else," she says. "Roasted meats are great in a wood oven, but I don't think they're better than vegetables. You get that delicious char without them being burned or overcooked. It makes the ingredients more interesting."

Take one of her menu staples, Roasted Carrot and Fennel Salad. Four-inch split carrots and fennel slices get the wood-fire treatment, caramelizing outside while keeping a little bite within. She pairs them with creamy house-made yogurt and spicy harissa. The dish perfectly blends the exotic and the familiar and takes everyday veggies to the next level. In Erickson's hands, the simple becomes sublime, and that's as good as cooking gets.