It's easy to accidentally step on a tomato when walking through HausBar Farms. The two-acre grounds of farmland in East Austin feel less like organised rows of crops and more like a poorly managed community garden, with small plots of produce hidden within an overgrown cover of weeds.
Farmer Dorsey Barger wouldn't have it any other way. The urban farm operates on a different model than most other organic kale spawning points. Seeds spread where they will, crowding walkways with snaking vines of tomatoes just begging to be squashed. The heirloom tomatoes are delicious, but the main draw for Austin's most forward-thinking chefs are weeds that would be discarded at most other farms.
"Once fennel has bolted, the bulb is no longer good, so most farmers yank it out of the ground. For us, what's way more exciting and natural is the fennel flower. It looks a little unruly, but you get this fantastic, beautiful sweetness. Then it morphs into the fennel seed, and it becomes crunchy but still sweet," says Barger. Another example is carrot seed, which functions mainly as a crunchy textural element with the faintest hints of its parent vegetable.
These types of unusual flowers, seeds, and stems have made their way onto some of the most boundary-pushing restaurants in town, from Uchi to Swift's Attic, but not without some resistance. The trend of garnishing the corner of a plate with a dainty flower repulses some old-school chefs. Jesse DeLeon is a convert.
"What I've really connected with is HausBar's philosophy on how to grow vegetables. It's the equivalent of a butcher using the nose to tail," says DeLeon. "I'm willing to use every single aspect of a pig, no matter how weird or gross, but I had this preconceived notion about flowers. It didn't make any sense—if it tastes good, use it."
DeLeon, an alum of the New England Culinary Institute and stalwart of Austin's Italian institution Vespaio, now makes a ritual of tasting his way through HausBar's weeds to help craft the menus for his supper club Victoria Provisions. One of the herbs that struck him most is papalo, a tiny green leaf substituted for cilantro in some regional Mexican dishes. It was actually the "ah-ha" weed that led Barger onto the path of root-to-flower farming.
"It has just the craziest, most unique flavour. It's eucalyptus-y. It just gives an extra depth that's so unique" says DeLeon.
Although diners dropping hundreds of dollars on prix fixe menus happily eat copper canyon daisy greens or cactus flowers, they can be a hard sell to the average eater. When I visited Victoria Provisions, the pop-up was reserved for a 39th birthday party where boat shoes and tucked polos seemed to be the dress code. A framed photograph of the birthday boy alongside Donald Trump was displayed prominently. The crowd of 30 featured some Vespaio regulars, but when asked about other favourite restaurants, most everyone I spoke with seemed more focused on cooking for their kids than foodie trends.
After an awkward game of musical chairs, I ended up seated next to the host's adorable parents, whose small-talk skills were downright amazing. The first dish hit the table, a tortilla-wrapped take on Asian fried chicken with Szechuan peppercorns and a few leaves of soapy papalo to dampen the spice. The second course was heartier, a hunk of grilled pork belly that DeLeon introduced as an ode to HausBar.
"The pork belly is almost like an afterthought to highlight all the herbs and flowers coming from the farm," says DeLeon. "What we have is a mole-glazed pork belly, watermelon that's been compressed with serrano, lime, and salt, then some winter savoury, purslane, sunflowers, more chilis, and African basil."
The birthday boy's father leaned toward me and whispered a quick joke. "That's all?"
But despite the unfamiliarity of the ingredients, my should-be-retired dining partners appreciated the garden of herbs. Next on the menu was a classic lemon and ricotta-filled ravioli with a decidedly un-classic addition of cactus paddles and flowers, followed by a traditional crowd-pleasing strip steak. The kicker was a tres leches cake that substituted peach leaf for almonds and prominently featured a few bright red flowers called Turk's cap.
It was the most popular dish of the night, with several people flagging down DeLeon to ask questions about the ingredients and recipe. It turns out the event space hosts kids' cooking classes during the day and must be a nut-free zone, which accounted for the pivot to peach leaves.
But even though everyone was impressed by the flavours, it couldn't rid a knee-jerk reaction from the birthday boy's wife. By the end of the course, her plate was clean except for the Turk's cap. I tried to convince her to give it a try, that it was a part of the dish and not just for decoration, but she couldn't be swayed.
"I just don't eat flowers," she said.