From Garden to Plate: How One Top Female Chef Is Transforming Green Cuisine At The Restaurant at JUSTIN, Chef Rachel Haggstrom will change the menu at the last minute just to make sure all the ingredients are fresh.
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Sustainability is on the menu this holiday season as more and more diners demand healthy and fresh food. At The Restaurant at JUSTIN in Paso Robles, California, Chef Rachel Haggstrom has elevated farm-to-fork cooking to an art form.
Chef Rachel uses The Restaurant's location on a 26-acre garden at JUSTIN Vineyards as her culinary canvas, incorporating edible flower fields, exotic fruits, vegetables, herbs, and fresh honey into her menu. Ninety-five percent of the ingredients she uses are locally sourced.
Tastemakers are taking notice. The Restaurant earned a Michelin Star for excellence and a Michelin Green Star, a new annual award for "outstanding eco-friendly commitments."
On any given day, a menu might include soup with sunchokes, apples, and horseradish or local snapper with Périgord black truffle, potato, chive, and crème fraiche.
Chef Rachel is somewhat of an anomaly in the fine dining circuit. While the number of female chefs is rising, women make up only 7% of head chefs at Michelin-star restaurants. But that hasn't stopped her from blazing her own green trail. We talked to her about her culinary origin story and her advice to other aspiring culinary artists.
Entrepreneur: When did you first know you had a passion for the culinary industry?
Chef Rachel: I grew up on a citrus grove and had access to a plethora of fruits to cook with, which sparked my love of food from an early age. As a child, I was given a packet of mixed seeds and would plant them in a corner of our garden, eventually harvesting the produce and figuring out how to turn these vegetables into food. The process of planting, taking care of, and harvesting the produce sparked a curiosity to cook, which I came to love.
You initially were studying criminal justice, so why did you take a turn into cooking?
I have a bachelor's degree in law with an emphasis in criminal justice and have always enjoyed both fields. I strongly considered getting my law degree. However, culinary has always been a passion, and I felt that if I didn't try it, I would regret it. Here I am still doing it, so I think I made the right decision!
Did you face any challenges being a woman in a primarily male-dominated industry?
I try to focus on perfecting my craft, letting my talent shine through, and allowing the dishes to speak for themselves. Of course, there have been many challenges being a woman in this field, but I try to avoid raising those concerns or frustrations when I can so that I can be defined by my work.
How did you make the menu at The Restaurant at JUSTIN your own?
The Restaurant was very different when I first joined, and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to make changes. I transformed where the food was sourced and how it was prepared. Currently, 95% of our produce on the seasonal rotating menu is sourced locally from either the 26-acre garden at JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery or local purveyors and farmers throughout the Central Coast. As I grew the team, I was able to teach and develop skill sets focused on fundamental techniques. Additionally, we have been able to become a place of mentorship and foster an environment of nurturing our passion for the culinary arts.
What is the dish you're most proud of and why?
This changes depending on my mood and season. The one dish that I was extremely happy with in terms of food and wine as a pairing was a ribeye cap dish with onion soubise, blueberry, beet, black truffle and our ISOSCELES Reserve. The pairing was seamless, and the dish itself had everything you could want. We've reinvented the dish over the last few years when it is in season and guests enjoy it.
What makes your menu at JUSTIN stand out (is it the seasonal and local offerings)?
The menu at The Restaurant at JUSTIN is seasonal, and because the team strives to use the freshest ingredients, it is subject to change depending on what's accessible at that time. Availability could change at any moment depending on the weather, which could result in our team changing the menu last minute. Our team is very good at working with the ingredients that we source and can pivot depending on what we can get our hands on. Our ability to make the local produce and farm-to-table ingredients shine makes the menu stand out. Our focus on technique and exceptional flavor pairings brings the best out of each ingredient, letting the food shine and allowing our guests to eat new things they assumed they would not enjoy.
What advice would you give to other women reading this who might be intimidated about breaking into the culinary industry?
Look at your peers as just that—peers, instead of looking for some identifier such as gender that is not applicable to cooking or teamwork. In doing so, you will realize that you are equal to others, and once you see yourself and treat yourself as an equitable peer, most will see you in that same light. Don't make excuses for yourself or anyone else. Hold yourself to the same or higher standard as others and allow yourself to shine for your talents.