At Row 7, chef Dan Barber is working with seed breeders to grow new varieties of vegetables that are designed for flavor–not just for profit by big agriculture companies.
Seven years ago, the chef Dan Barber invited a group of seed breeders to have dinner at Blue Hill, his groundbreaking farm-to-table restaurant in New York City. After dinner, he invited one breeder, Michael Mazourek, back to the kitchen to talk more. “We were standing there looking at a Butternut squash being prepped by one of my cooks, and I said to him, just jokingly, ‘If you’re such a great breeder, why don’t you make a Butternut squash taste good?’” Barber tells Fast Company. “He said, ‘In all my years of breeding, no one has ever asked me to select for flavor.’”
Barber was stunned. “At that moment I realized there were so many questions, like, who are you talking to, and why aren’t chefs involved in the conversation?” he says. “Because that’s all they care about.” Seed breeding, he later realized, led by large companies like Monsanto, has focused more on the needs of the modern food system than the people actually eating the food. A tomato that can survive a thousand-mile journey in a truck and long storage was bred for hardiness, not how it tastes. Heirloom varieties, which have prioritized taste, often have lower yields for farmers, making them less common and more expensive.
Mazourek, however, had been experimenting with another type of squash that he called the Honeynut–smaller and more nutritious than the Butternut, and sweet enough to eat without the addition of sugar or honey. Before meeting Barber, there just wasn’t much commercial interest in it. Barber began working with Mazourek to tweak the taste of the new squash, and championed the vegetable, beginning to use it on menus. Because of his position in the food world, it quickly spread–other chefs started using it, it became popular at farmers’ markets, and Trader Joes and Whole Foods started carrying it. “Blue Apron just harvested 1.9 million pounds of it this past fall,” Barber says.
This year, Barber and Mazourek, along with Matthew Goldfarb, an organic seed grower and the co-founder of a seed company called Fruition Seeds, decided to turn their model of chef-breeder collaboration into a new company. Row 7 launched at the end of February with a small selection of seeds bred for flavor, like heirlooms, but with better yield and built-in disease resistance that makes them well-suited for organic farming. Several additional varieties are also in development.The company’s Habanada pepper, which Mazourek, now a professor at Cornell, originally created for his doctoral thesis, has the aroma and sweetness of a habanero without the heat. The Badger Flame beet, developed by a professor at the University of Wisconsin, is mild, sweet, and can be eaten raw. The Upstate Abundance potato tastes buttery without butter. The 7082 cucumber, named for the trial plot in which it was grown, brings back the traditional flavor that watery supermarket varieties have lost.
“In breeding, you have your list of priorities and you’re never going to be able to satisfy them all,” says Mazourek. “In recent times we’ve seen cheap uniformity, chemical agriculture, rise to the top, and the idea of flavor has been pushed way down . . . let’s take a step back and say, is this the change we wanted? Can we actually now take something that has disease resistance, doesn’t need the sprays, has a great yield for the farmer, and insist it tastes great?”
For breeders at universities, Row 7 is an outlet for projects that might never have been commercialized at standard seed companies. “All of my peers have their side projects–the thing they think is really cool–but there hasn’t necessarily been a way to share that, get in the marketplace,” he says. “So we’re hoping to be an outlet for all that creativity.”
For chefs, the work is a new opportunity to think about the whole process of food creation, rather than simply dealing with the ingredients that happen to be available. When chefs work with less-than-ideal ingredients, “We use culinary craft to make them into something really delicious,” says Barber. “What if we started that process not when it arrives on the cutting board in our kitchens, but instead thought about that process from the ground up?”
The company is partnering with dozens of chefs to get their feedback and plans to develop varieties that are specific to particular regions, rather than the type of seed common in agribusiness that is meant to grow anywhere. “The food culture is shifting away from a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Barber. “The future of food is about regionalism and about highlighting different environments and ecologies and cultural connections that make ingredients really sing.”
As the flavor improves, there can also be nutritional benefits. The Honeynut squash (and the company’s tweaked version, the 898 squash), has twice the beta carotene of a regular Butternut squash. A serving has more than double the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A.
The seeds are also optimized for sustainability. Researchers are currently working on a variety of squash plant with a delicious leaf and stem, rather than just the squash itself, to reduce food waste in the field. The company’s seeds are bred for disease resistance, rather than requiring chemical pesticides or herbicides, like Roundup-ready corn.Each seed is also unpatented, unlike seeds from companies like Monsanto. “Patents can really restrict our ability to respond to needs that we have for the food system,” says Mazourek. “It’s not just a new invention, it’s our common shared heritage.” Anyone can modify the seeds. Other companies could start selling them, though the startup is betting on the power of marketing from chefs to make customers loyal to its brand.
It also hopes to make the new varieties, like the Honeynut squash that inspired the company, mainstream. Barber has talked about wanting to sell to Walmart. With investors like Walter Robb, the former co-CEO of Whole Foods, and Richard Schnieders, the former CEO of the food service company Sysco Foods, Row 7 has the means to scale up.
“It’s something that I think spreads once people have the ability to make the choice,” says Mazourek. “Who doesn’t want the food that they’re eating or selling to others to taste better?”