West Coast Petal Pushers Jay and Pamela North Foster a Flowering Culinary Fad
updated 08/17/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/17/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Yes, fashionable diners everywhere have a period of attitude adjustment in store: Suddenly, in the hottest and haute-est of West Coast cuisine, flowers are hot as a pistil. Whether floating on soups, sitting in salads or simply garnishing main courses, they've moved from the centerpiece to the center of the plate at eateries all over California and even eastward. Enterprising nouvelle cuisine chefs are tossing nasturtiums, pansies, violets, roses and daisies into almost everything on the menu.
"The better it looks, the better it tastes," says Chris King, general manager of L.A.'s Gourmet USA. Adds Michael Glick of L.A. Specialty Produce Co.: "With meat, cheese and fish you can't go that far in trying to create presentations. Edible flowers make it easy for chefs to be more creative."
All of which means that business is finally blooming for Jay and Pamela North of Paradise Farms in Carpinteria, Calif. Not the likeliest of organic flower farmers, the L.A.-raised, chain-smoking couple met when Pamela was a 21-year-old nurse's aide and folk artist and Jay was a hustling 24-year-old Beverly Hills hairdresser. Two weeks later they got married in Las Vegas, and so began an eight-year odyssey of failed business ventures before their lucky break into the tasty bud biz.
Five years ago the Norths were growing a few herbs and baby vegetables in a small farming operation in Santa Barbara that was just beginning to turn a profit. Then Jay got a call from a produce wholesaler who said the head chef at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles had asked for nasturtiums. Did they have any? While the honest answer would have been, "Yes, we have no nasturtiums," Jay unhesitatingly replied, "Sure, we've got them all over the place."
The Norths immediately began scouring the surrounding hills and foraged the 200 nasturtiums they needed. Since the wholesaler had asked about future supplies, the Norths later that very day planted 10 pounds of nasturtium seeds in every color they could find. The flowers grew like crazy, but the business didn't. Pamela's hopes began to wither. "If I had been in it by myself, without Jay, I think I'd have given up," she admits. "Jay's persistence held up well. As a marketer, he's a natural."
Naturally stubborn, at least. "With every flower we've researched and introduced, it's been a battle," says Jay, 37. "We set out to make an industry of edible flowers, and we've had to promote them ourselves." Their research suggested that flowers were often used in teas, preserves and sandwiches until the end of the 19th century. Though a few continental cooks occasionally tossed violets into a dish, and French pastry chefs sometimes used extracts of roses, petals had been passé for about 100 years.
The Norths also learned that not all flowers are edible. Many common flowers are toxic—including lilies of the valley, poinsettias, irises, wisteria, daffodils and oleander. The Norths warn against eating flowers bought in a flower shop, which are often treated with poisonous chemicals.
Even those that are edible often prove less than delectable. "We've tried to find flowers that have flavor," says Pamela, 34. "A lot of flowers just taste like flowers." Nasturtiums are peppery, red roses are sweeter than yellow and violets are sweeter yet. Pansies, chrysanthemums and marigolds are as bland as iceberg lettuce, if prettier. Observes L.A. chef Laurent Quenioux: "Most of the time, flowers are so beautiful people don't want to eat them."
But more are now willing to give them a try. Last year, the Norths sold almost a million nasturtium blossoms, and 250,000 pansies. They grew 35 varieties of edible flowers in 1986 (as well as quantities of herbs and baby vegetables) and have introduced four new types this year, including petunias.
For the Norths, revenge is sweet. "They laughed at us for years," says Jay, "but we totally created the demand for edible flowers. This jet has been taxiing down the runway for years, and it's finally getting off the ground." Earlier this year Smokey Robinson sang a paean to a pansy as he munched it on Hollywood Squares. But the most inspired use may have been made by a female chef in San Francisco, who ordered a bouquet of edible bloomers for her wedding. After the ceremony, instead of throwing her bouquet to a bridesmaid, the bride tossed it right into the salad, which she then served to her guests.