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Where Professional Chefs Shop for Ideas

While some chefs belong to culinary think tanks or attend creative recipe-writing workshops in venues like Bologna or San Sebastian, most of the world’s top restaurant chefs need nothing more than a farmers market to get their creative juices flowing. It was surely an adventuresome cook who first realized that leeks and chestnuts worked well together, or shallots and corn, wild mushrooms and goat cheese, spinach and pignolis, etc. An outdoor market in midsummer is a bonanza of fresh flavors, colors, shapes, and textures fueling five senses of culinary inspiration.

But too much experience can also be problematic when shopping, notes San Diego chef and cookbook author Deborah Schneider, who has to remind herself to “keep an open mind and see what looks best that day.”

She’s not keen on specific pairings as much as seeking to locate that “one great item and then build around it by looking for flavor balance and complementary tastes: acidic/tart, sweet/starchy, and savory/herbal.” Ideally, she’ll end up with all three contrasts on the same plate. After thirty-plus years of cooking in private kitchens and restaurants from Greece to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, Schneider gradually grew to realize that foods that grow in the same season mysteriously tend to go together. “The standard summer ratatouille is an example — it’s hard to go wrong. Think about beets, watermelon, and basil, an incongruous but great summer combination.” Look for Schneider’s Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta cookbook, as well as Baja! Cooking on the Edge.

The ideal summer menu shouldn’t require too much prep time in the kitchen. Lori Lyn Narlock, author of 10 cookbooks including, most recently, Small Plates, Perfect Wines, reminds us to buy only what’s fully ripe because “the closer a food is to its peak season, the more flavorful it will be and the less fuss it will take to taste delicious on the table.” Her advice also includes a health component because peak ripeness means more flavor and thus, less fat (butter, oil) will be needed in cooking.