Chef Aaron Woo wins The 2013 Produce Innovation Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.
Credit: Photo: Leela Cyd

The culinary pendulum has been swinging away from meat and toward plants. Not that pork belly—or charcuterie or barbecue—is in eclipse, but the real kitchen magicians can dazzle with broccoli and farro. Most big American cities now boast produce-focused restaurants—some vegetarian, some vegan, some omnivore—and the challenge is less market survival than standing out. This is a healthy trend.

Aaron Woo stands out and turns heads. Even in the food-crazy city of Portland, his impact on produce-focused cooking has been notable. "Woo is constantly pushing himself to find new ways to express the produce that's available right here, right now," says Grant Butler, food critic for The Oregonian. "He has raised the standards of what vegetarian can be."

Natural Selection—opened in 2011—offers eye-openingly delectable vegan and vegetarian food, served in four-course prix fixe menus. Woo's technical acumen, attention to detail, and endless drive to amp up the flavor set his food leagues ahead of the conventional definition of "vegetarian." It helps that Woo himself eats meat, and so appreciates the flavors and textures that please nonvegetarians.

"To achieve creaminess in veggie dishes, we often make some sort of puree that gives you that cream sensation," Woo says. He puts that principle into play in dishes like tender hand-rolled Chard Gnocchi with Pumpkin Sauce, which is smooth as velvet.

Woo's constant goal is to boost flavor intensity in complex, multicomponent dishes like Chickpea Ratatouille. "Customers will wonder, 'How do they get so much flavor from this vegetable?' It could be the fact that the vegetable is incredibly fresh and flavorful on its own, but it's probably because we did something like make a stock out of it, make a flavored oil out of it, and then used those two flavored components to combine with the vegetable. That way, you get a huge depth of flavor. And we do that kind of thing for 8 or 10 vegetables on the plate, so everything really stands out."

He's careful not to overwhelm, however. To balance a plate he adds elements that he calls neutral: "A piece of turnip or radish. Nothing special. It's like negative space. I put that into the dish to give you perspective. They almost act like palate cleansers and really brighten everything else up."

All this forethought makes Natural Selection both a cerebral and a sensual experience, but there's no need to think much past this simple fact: For pure deliciousness, Woo's food takes produce-based cooking to the next level.