Califonia Bountiful

A feast for the eyes

September/October 2021 California Bountiful magazine

Edible flowers add flavor and flair

Chef Eric Lee of Umami Japanese restaurant in San Marcos is ready to serve an artfully presented plate of sashimi featuring edible flowers from Fresh Origins farm, also in San Marcos. Photo: © 2021 Rob Andrew

Like most of us, patrons of Umami Japanese restaurant in San Marcos devour a dish with their eyes before they ever take a bite. That's why presentation is of utmost importance to co-owner and Executive Chef Eric Lee.

"We want our food to look delicious and vibrant. We want the first sensation upon presentation to be a delight," Lee said. "That sets the stage for tasting the various flavors."

One way the chef and his staff achieve that "wow" factor is by utilizing a unique type of ingredient. It's one undeniably associated with beauty, but often a surprise to find on the plate: flowers.

Purple and white pansies and pink Micro Star Flowers add visual appeal and unique flavors to a poke bowl at Umami Japanese restaurant. Photo: © 2021 Rob Andrew

A garden of flavors

"Edible flowers make for bold and exciting presentations," Lee said. "Not only that, they contribute great flavor" to the restaurant's sushi and California-influenced Japanese dishes.

Micro Marigold blooms, for example, impart bright, citrusy notes to the eatery's award-winning Sushi Muffin, a seafood creation one Yelp reviewer called "a big bite of amazing flavor." Micro Orchid, instead, tastes like cucumber and often adorns sushi rolls, whereas lavender flowers are intensely aromatic and flavorful, Lee said. Bright sprays of amaranth blossom enliven the Spicy Tuna Canape. And an array of microgreens—the young, nutrient-rich seedlings of vegetables and herbs—complete the floral look while packing in flavor. A generous portion of Micro Cilantro, for example, is served atop the steamed bao bun and soy-braised pork belly of the Piggy Bao.

"The whole sensory experience begins with the presentation and ends, hopefully, with fulfilment of the promise that what looks good will indeed be delicious," Lee said.

For these essential components in creating edible masterpieces, Lee doesn't have to look far. The nation's leading producer of edible flowers and microgreens, Fresh Origins, is located a few miles away.

David Sasuga, who grows a wide variety of edible flowers at his farm, Fresh Origins, picks a basil blossom. Photo: © 2021 Rob Andrew

A farm-to-fork family affair

Though many chefs and farmers in this particularly fertile state enjoy close working relationships, the ties between Lee and the founder and an owner of Fresh Origins, David Sasuga, run deeper than most: They happen to be brothers-in-law (Sasuga is married to Lee's sister, Julie), as well as former colleagues. When Lee first moved to California from South Korea in 2010, he found a foothold working with Sasuga at Fresh Origins, before deciding to pursue a culinary career and working in several Japanese restaurants to learn the business. Lee and his wife, Jenny, opened Umami in 2018, with support from his sister and Sasuga, who remains a trusted advisor.

Sasuga is no stranger to the restaurant business. The tiny, yet colorful and flavorful flowers he grows on his 80-acre farm in San Marcos are featured on the menus of restaurants and resorts across North America and the Caribbean.

That adds up to lots of edible flowers. In addition to outdoor gardens, 32 acres of greenhouses are employed in Fresh Origins' year-round operation. On these grounds, about 60 different varieties of flowers are grown, including marigold, chrysanthemum, pansy, viola, nasturtium and orchid. They offer a variety of flavors: peppery, nutty, spicy, sweet, melony.

The flowers are harvested at maturity and used as décor in baking or as a creative addition to salads, fresh fish, mixed drinks, tea, vinegars, dressings, cheeses and butter, and can be scattered as a topping for just about any type of food.

Sasuga acknowledges most people don't realize many flowers are edible.

"It is often overlooked that broccoli, cabbage and even artichokes are actually flowers. Many common garden flowers are indeed edible," he said.

Alma Montalbo packs nasturtium flowers at Fresh Origins. Photo: © 2021 Rob Andrew

Flowers as food

Sasuga was working at his nursery, growing tomato and other specialty vegetable seedlings for farmers and ranchers in the mid-1990s, when a chef from an upscale restaurant came in for tomatoes and was excited by the tiny basil seedlings he saw. He wanted to use the micro-sized plants to garnish his plates and add a touch of flavor. Sasuga was skeptical at first, he said, wondering why the chef wouldn't want full-sized basil.

"But it was their unique, micro-size appearance that was special and appealing. This was what excited him most and was the spark that was the inspiration for growing these tiny greens for restaurants," said Sasuga, who transitioned his nursery from vegetables to microgreens and edible flowers.

To grow his business, Sasuga traveled widely, meeting chefs and distributors and going to trade shows. He brought samples of the flowers with him for chefs to experiment with.

"The more I offered, the more excited my customers were. The chefs were doing amazing things with my product," he said. "This led me to start growing as many edible flowers as I could find, in order to have the best selection possible."

Sasuga grows marigolds in pots rather than in the ground because he finds that method easier to manage. Photo: © 2021 Rob Andrew

Business is blooming

The flowers at Fresh Origins grow in pots both outdoors and inside the greenhouses and are watered through drip irrigation. They are picked by hand six days a week, packed in insulated boxes with cold packs and shipped immediately, usually arriving at their destination the next morning.

Sasuga said he believes the warm, sunny Mediterranean climate of the San Diego region makes a big difference in the taste and appeal of his products.

"The day length, intensity of the sunlight, outside temperature and outside humidity all play a major role in how plants grow inside the greenhouse," he said.

Because of the climate, Sasuga said the edible flowers have a concentrated range of color and flavor.

Fresh Origins has developed a new offering: MicroFlowers. The tiniest of the edible flowers, they are often used for pastries and other delicate desserts, in addition to adorning seafood dishes at Lee's restaurant. There are also the FireStix, sprays of bold amaranth with flame-like blossoms that add height and flair to dishes and cocktails.

Unami Japanese restaurant presents spicy tuna canapes accented with microgreens, yellow violas and a sprig of bright-red FireStix. Photo: © 2021 Rob Andrew

Another product offered by Fresh Origins is shelf-stable Flower Crystals—a crunchy, highly concentrated, granular form of flowers. Sasuga said they are harvested at the peak of flavor and color, and combined with pure cane sugar to sprinkle on food displays or line the rim of a cocktail glass.

"We are constantly trialing new ideas and new varieties, most of which don't pan out, but we do enough to come up with a regular stream of unique items for the chefs," Sasuga said.

The work he does on the farm makes Lee's job of bringing delight to his patrons that much easier.

"It is very difficult and complicated work to operate a restaurant, but there is so much satisfaction gained from the positive response we get from serving our customers," Lee said. "We can only exist if our customers have a great experience, and that all begins with beautiful food."

Judy Farah and Shannon Springmeyer

Marigold: Slightly bitter and citrusy

Flowers with flavor

David Sasuga grows about 60 varieties of edible flowers at his San Diego County farm. He describes the flavors present in some common garden flowers:

Nasturtium: Peppery and sweet

Orchid: Hints of cucumber and melon

Lavender: Concentrated floral taste

Begonia: Tart

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