Vegetables are no stranger to the limited-service industry, but have long been confined to the salad bowl and sandwich topping station. Today, quick-serve and fast-casual operators are rediscovering the potential of fresh vegetables, especially as local sourcing and fresh foods are more in demand from consumers.

To get an idea of how operators can play around with vegetables on their menu—from the flavors and applications to the textures and sourcing—we talked with Jesse Gideon, corporate chef for Atlanta-based Fresh to Order, a fast-casual concept taking notes from the fine-dining world when it comes to premium menu development.

How do you elevate the quality and flavor of vegetables on the menu?

We’re trying to stay with local vegetables, not necessarily for the sake of it being local, but because it’s easier to source and the quality is better. And generally, to elevate vegetables, you have to use them at their freshest and with practices that they enjoy and do well with. What I mean by that is not trying to make a vegetable something it’s not, but using a technique that will bring out the natural flavor of that vegetable without overpowering its natural flavor or masking its natural flavor.

One of the things we use a lot is this roasted corn relish that we do. It doesn’t sound exciting, but for us it is because everything we put it on is amazing. Any day you go to our restaurants you see cooks shucking corn and then roasting it. While the relish in itself is not revolutionary or out of the box, it enables you to enjoy the crunch and texture of the corn. It enables you to enjoy the slight sweetness of the corn while adding a roasted depth to it.

How do you balance flavor and texture in vegetables?

We pay tremendous attention to texture; that’s one of the things we do best. And we’re constantly trying to ensure that we have sharp and bitter and sour flavors to go with our salty and sweet flavors. On our Grilled Vegetable Panini, we have soft bread, so right out of the gate we’re soft. We then add soft avocado, but the soft avocado is there because it adds fat and it adds creaminess. Traditionally, when you have vegetable sandwiches, they lack something, and a lot of the times what they’re lacking is fat. You can get some of that fat from olive oil, but avocado does the best job of giving you that creamy, fatty, fill-your-cheeks kind of feeling. We use grilled zucchini and yellow squash, so we get some smoky flavors in there. We do it with some grilled red onions, which give it some crunch—they’re slightly grilled so you get texture out of that.

What kind of spicing should you do when preparing vegetables?

We create a few different seasoning mixes and we do a few different infused oils. So with the Panini, you’re getting a black pepper, lemon, and chile oil on it. We do that a lot. Just about every oil we use in house, with the exception of some finishing of extra virgin olive oil, all the other oils are infused. We have one that we do that we don’t do on any vegetables yet—we’ve been fooling around with it—but we have one that is literally like a chile olive oil mop. It’s like wet sand. It gives a super thick, salty, fiery, chile taste. It’s got some herbs in there like thyme and oregano and rosemary. It gives a really cool burnt, roasted flavor to just about anything you put it on.

Now that local and fresh are so important, what kind of challenges do you face when it comes to serving vegetables?

It’s trying to find farms that can meet up with your supply and demand with different stuff. You can throw a stick here in Atlanta and you’d hit somebody growing zucchini, squash, jalapeños, corn, cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes. But if you wanted some exotic greens or just some exotic Asian-style vegetables, whether it’s kohlrabi or bok choy, you may not be able to find it.

What food safety issues are there with fresh vegetable sourcing?

Our first responsibility is to serve delicious food, and our second responsibility is to be safe about it—or maybe those are opposite. Knowing your farms and knowing their practices and knowing where they get their water source from and what’s running down on their land and how they treat and how they process goes a long way.

What best practices would you recommend for maximizing the freshness and flavor of vegetables?

Build the smallest refrigerators you need to get the job done; that way you can’t put that much in there. We build the smallest walk-in coolers on purpose so you’re forced to get produce five or six times a week. The bigger your storage is, the more likely you are to store additional products so you order less frequently, and that’s the opposite of what you want to do. You want to see your produce guy five or six times a week so you know you’re getting the freshest product.

Fast Casual, Food Safety, Health & Wellness, Menu Innovations, Story, Fresh to Order