My Vegetable Story: Why Chef Alex Crabb Insists on Burning His Vegetables

The Asta chef/co-owner talks trying his best to shop local, the futility of dressing up a rutabaga, and learning how to cook while dumpster diving in Minneapolis.

Published Mar. 24, 2017.

This interview is part of a series celebrating the publication of The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook. We've interviewed celebrated chefs and members of the Test Kitchen family, each of whom knows a thing or two about how to best prepare vegetables. (Ed's note: This interview originally ran on on March 5th, 2015.) 


Chef Alex Crabb has some serious credentials. Not only was he nominated for a James Beard Award in 2015 for “Best Chef: Northeast,” but also his restaurant, Asta, was nominated in the Best New Restaurant category in 2014. He’s also completed internships at The French Laundry and Noma, each widely considered to be among the best restaurants in the world. Which is to say that, with all that pedigree, it was a bit surprising to discover that Crabb first figured out that he really wanted to learn how to cook while dumpster diving for berries in Minneapolis.

Above: A chalk drawing on the wall at Crabb's Boston restaurant, Asta. 

I interviewed Crabb to get a sense of how the celebrated chef thinks about vegetables. Here’s what he had to say.

Why is sourcing important to you?

We work hard at sourcing. You know, not everything is hand-sourced of course, but we work with some farms. We don’t put it on the menu, and we don’t brag. It’s something we do because it makes for a better product . . . I think you can taste the difference. And that sort of adds that element of mystery. It’s like, “Whoa, those beets there were amazing.” And yeah, it’s because we work really hard at getting the best beets and only certain beets work. But like, you don’t need to see that. You don’t need to see the sausage being made.

How do you think about vegetables when you’re creating a new dish?

When you do things that are showcasing the vegetable, more times than not it’s pretty simple and there’s not a lot of technique. So basically what you’re showcasing is your ability to acquire the vegetable. And I tell the guys all the time, I’m like, “There are three ingredients on this plate. If it’s not perfect we can’t do it—it makes no sense. If the beet isn’t the right beet and it doesn’t taste right, then we have to come up with a new dish.”

How much do you try to take cooking with locally grown produce into account?

It’s an interesting modern struggle. There’s a guy up in Maine at Vinland who’s doing everything from right around 100 miles. And so he’s not using citrus. I don’t know, that’s an interesting challenge, but it’s like, I’m trained in French technique and lemon juice is always there—you build your flavors with that. I think that more cooks, more chefs are game to try that experience than diners are. The demand is not there. It’s sort of what you hold yourself to.

When I first was cooking it was in the age of—and I’m sure there’s a better name for it—FedEx cuisine. You were a better restaurant by how far your product came from FedEx . . . We totally went all the way in the other direction from that. I think that restaurants now are trying to find a balance between the two.

How are chefs thinking about vegetables now that they maybe weren’t even several years ago?

I think this whole generation of cooks is sort of reconsidering every little thing on the plate, down to the garnish and why it’s there and what does it add. And I think that the clientele is very accepting of that. And not all of my plates are garnished. Yeah, I could put pretty little things on the plate and make it look nicer, but it’s pointless and it’s not going to make it taste any better. And I know people eat with their eyes first, but you have to find the balance with that and you’ve got to be creative.

What do you find most challenging about cooking vegetables?

I think that each vegetable has a different thing, a different personality. Like right now we’re really struggling with carrots and winter vegetables in general because they’re sort of—no one wants to eat the perfect rutabaga. You know what I mean? And you don’t want to dress it up too much—put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig, or whatever. A lot of winter vegetables have a lot of cellulose—they’re just made up of a lot of stuff, and so they just suck up flavor and don’t express a lot of flavor, and you don’t really want to eat too much of any one of those things.

Just trying to understand the vegetable—we eat a lot of vegetables raw, we roast the heck out of them, we burn them. The boys joke that, “Oh, a new dish must be coming,” because the first thing I’ll do is burn the heck out of something on purpose. “Let’s see what it tastes like all the way in this direction.” I like to always add a little bit of that element to it. I like to express the degrees of something, like raw, perfectly cooked, charred . . . You get all of those different flavors, you can eat it together, you can eat it separate. It’s only a little bit so you don’t get fatigued.

What are you currently finding most exciting about vegetables?

We have a dish [beef heart and sunchoke puree] and it was like, “Oh, we’ll put this perfectly braised sugar beet on,” and it was really good. And then we ate it [the sugar beet] by itself, and we were like, “Oh, this is really good.” And then we served it to a vegan, and she was like, “This is great.”

Do you have a favorite vegetable?

I like beets a lot because I think they’re the most versatile. You can go from sweet to savory. A couple years ago we had a roasted red beet and chocolate cake for dessert, and we actually put the beet greens on as well, which you don’t expect but it really elevated the chocolate flavors a lot. And then you can go all the way to the other extreme—we paired them with dehydrated black olives.

Were you a fussy vegetable eater as a kid?

I just ate everything. I didn’t really mind, I liked it all. You know, you always pick up strange things. My father had a habit whenever he was preparing cabbages—he’d cut the heart out and then he’d slice it really thin and just put a lot of salt on it and eat it, just the cabbage heart. And it was tough, and I think that I picked that up from him. Just looking at, well, there’s a part that everyone throws away and here he is eating it. It’s got its own rewards.

We always had a vegetable garden, so we always had things coming in and out of the house. But it wasn’t like, a standout thing to me. It was just always there.

What inspired you to become a chef in the first place?

I’d always been in the hospitality industry—dishwasher, prep cook, things like that. But then I went on a little adventure when I was like, 18 or 19, and it was kind of punk rock. I was squatting at this house in Minneapolis with all these punk kids, and they were dumpster diving and they got all these really good berries—cherries and berries—that were just a little bit off, but you know how it is. And we’re cooking and we were like, “Let’s make a cobbler,” but none of us really knew how to cook. And so it was really cool to see everyone come together and get excited about it, but the finished product wasn’t all that good. And I think it was that moment when I was like, “I think I’m going to learn how to cook. I want to be able to make those people happy.” They worked really hard at gathering the food.

Shortly after that meal I left Minneapolis and came out here to start cooking.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Farmer’s markets appear to be expensive in the short run, but in the long run it’s a priceless investment. You’re investing in the farmer, you’re investing in the mindset and the mentality, and the infrastructure because it’s still very new. It’s only been what, within a decade that it’s been a thing. So it’s not all there yet, and we have to put money into it.

The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook

The 700+ recipes in this comprehensive collection show you inventive and uncomplicated techniques for making boldly flavored appetizers, soups and stews, main dishes, pasta, pizzas, and more. Whether you’re a committed vegetarian or simply want to eat more vegetables and grains, this collection of re-imagined, meatless comfort food and all-new recipes inspired by ethnic cuisines will help you cook and eat well.  
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