Often relegated to Asian salads and soups, or even ice cream (where an extract is used as a thickener in some commercial brands), seaweed has been a common, if relatively specialized, ingredient in American life. With its 104 locations from New York to Los Angeles, and with the support of restaurateur and chef David Chang, who helped develop the kelp bowl, Sweetgreen will give seaweed its biggest stage since the 2000s, when chefs began incorporating nori into dishes outside the sushi tradition. The kelp bowl debuts Thursday at Sweetgreens coast to coast and will be available until March 26.
Following its ambitious collaboration with chef/activist Dan Barber’s Row 7 seed company, which lead to the Koginut Squash Bowl and squash fries in late 2018, Sweetgreen was searching for another limited-time offering that could tell an interesting story and perhaps raise the stakes a little. Climate change kept popping up as a topic important to the salad chain’s owners and its customers, said co-founder Nicolas Jammet.
As they thought about “what ingredients we can introduce to our customers, one of the ones we kept coming back around to is kelp,” Jammet said. “So 2020 for Sweetgreen is the year of kelp.”
“We’re trying to make kelp cool,” he added, then paused to consider his sentence. “Or cooler, I guess.”
Making kelp cooler could also make life on this planet a little cooler, especially around the Gulf of Maine, which is reportedly warming faster than most of the world’s oceans. As the head of the Maine-based Atlantic Sea Farms, Warner knows all about how climate change has affected the gulf, and what those rising temperatures could mean for the lobstermen who have relied on the water for their livelihoods. After several productive seasons, the lobster catch was down 40 percent last year, Warner said, a drop that can dramatically affect the families who rely on the prized shellfish for their income.
Atlantic Sea Farms is working with lobstermen to diversify their income streams before climate change potentially strips them of their ability to make a living from their current fishery. Growing kelp has been an ideal solution, Warner said. Lobstermen can use the same boats, and much of the same equipment, to grow and harvest seaweed in the months between lobster seasons. Atlantic Sea Farms provides the kelp seedlings free, arranges meetings to discuss best practices, agrees to buy all the kelp grown by farmers and develops markets for it.
In 2018, Atlantic Sea Farms partnered with three farms that produced about 40,000 pounds of kelp. For this coming season, the company is working with 24 farms, which are expected to produce about 650,000 pounds of two species, sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) and skinny kelp (Saccharina latissima forma angustissima). Sweetgreen is buying about 22,000 pounds of Atlantic’s supply for its kelp bowl.
Atlantic’s kelp will be unlike the majority of seaweed that Americans have tasted in the past. For starters, it’s fresh, Warner said. It’s not the dehydrated stuff grown in the sometimes-compromised waters of China, Malaysia or Indonesia, the main countries that produce seaweed for export. The overseas product is typically rehydrated and dyed bright green, Warner said. “Could you imagine rehydrating a kale chip and calling it kale?” she asked.
What’s more, Warner added, growing kelp can sequester carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans, helping to reverse the acidification of these waters as well as the negative effects that a lower pH has on marine life. “There’s this incredible sustainability message here that we’re helping people adapt to climate change and mitigate some of its effects and, at the same time, providing a good nutrient-dense product that’s really delicious,” Warner said.
As everyone involved in Sweetgreen’s kelp bowl will tell you, deliciousness is key. You can tell diners, till you’re blue in the face, about the benefits of kelp aquaculture, but unless the seaweed bowl tastes good, few will care enough to keep buying it. Enter Chang, the Northern Virginia-born chef whose influence stretches from restaurants to books to podcasts to TV series. Chang, a small investor in Sweetgreen, and his Momofuku culinary team worked with the chain’s chefs to get the kelp bowl ready for prime time.
It was a long process.
Sweetgreen’s chefs, including Michael Stebner and Peter Kayaian (who previously worked at Momofuku Group, developing retail and wholesale products), first created a kelp bowl with a teriyaki bent. Their bowl featured kelp, rice, avocado, cucumber, almonds and a teriyaki-style dressing. “It was delicious,” Stebner said.
Chang and company didn’t go for it. Chang said he loves teriyaki flavors, but “I didn’t want kelp to be typecast as this specifically Asian thing.” So over the course of several months, Chang’s crew reworked the bowl, consulting with the Sweetgreen chefs and relying mostly on ingredients already available at the fast-casual chain. The final bowl features kale, marinated kelp, seasoned white sweet potato, roasted chicken, tomatoes, cabbage, wild rice, a lime-cashew dressing and two seasoning blends, including Momofuku’s Tingly Seasoned Salt, which incorporates a small amount of numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
“They got to see how inefficiently we work through ideas,” Chang said, half-joking about Momofuku’s laborious research and development. This is the second time Chang has contributed to a Sweetgreen salad. In 2014, Sweetgreen’s New York City locations served a bowl with Momofuku Hozon dressing, featuring a miso paste that Chang’s lab fermented from sunflower seeds, not the traditional soybeans.
As a part of the Tingly Sweet Potato and Kelp Bowl, the seaweed represents only a fraction of the total ingredients. It’s a quarter cup of kelp per order, Stebner said, the same amount as the tomatoes and cabbage. As such, kelp is not the dominant flavor, but more of an aftertaste; fresh, vegetal and oceanic. Much of the bowl’s pleasures are derived from its other umami-packed ingredients, especially an MSG-free furikake seasoning that contains nori, sesame seeds, dried oregano and Parmesan. The combination of flavors places the bowl squarely in the fusion category.
Sweetgreen will be promoting the bowl hard. The company has produced a video, featuring Jammet and Chang, which will soon make it way to YouTube and the usual social network platforms. Will it help customers to eat their seaweed? Chang said that, several years ago, he put a couple of kelp-forward dishes on the menu at Momofuku Noodle Bar. They didn’t sell. He doesn’t really know why.
“If something is delicious, it will win out,” Chang said. “It just has to go through this crucible of culture and fight through ignorance. … But I don’t think anyone can force it.”
Jammet said he’s not concerned if the kelp bowl bombs. The dish is almost secondary to the hopeful environmental and economic message behind kelp.
“It may not work,” Jammet said. “The customers may not get as excited about kelp as we are. But if we tell a good enough story and make the bowl taste good, we think they will.”
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