Ben Tabor, the owner and chef of New Orleans' vegetable-focused restaurant, The Sneaky Pickle, doesn’t have far to go to get what he needs. The farmers come to him.
Covey Rise Farms stops by the Pickle in a van packed with vegetables grown on their 50-acre farm near Husser, Louisiana. Tabor simply climbs into the truck and selects what he wants. Nightshade Acres, of Magnolia, Mississippi, also comes directly to the restaurant bearing beautiful vegetables, sometimes the likes of which Tabor’s never seen before: pink Japanese turnips or black radishes. Not knowing exactly what to do with a vegetable, he says, “leaves a lot of room for creativity.”
This is not uncommon territory for Tabor. Suppliers often bring by unusual produce. Recently, Support Urban Agriculture came by loaded with vegetables grown just down the road in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward: dandelion greens, black radishes, and an herb resembling carrot tops that Tabor couldn’t identify.
Tabor is a big supporter of VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, the co-op started after the 2010 BP Oil disaster in order to provide both jobs and food to a USDA-designated food desert in New Orleans East’s Vietnamese community. Tabor buys his tofu from VEGGI along with whatever seasonal produce the co-op has on hand.
“My buffalo tofu is sexy to vegans and vegetarians,” he boasts, “and people who eat meat like it. But they don’t seek it out.”
While The Sneaky Pickle is mostly vegan, Tabor has at least one meat item on the menu that changes daily. Tabor recently purchased half a pig from Chappapeela Farms, where ducks and pigs roam the meadows about 70 miles north of New Orleans on the other side of Lake Ponchartrain. Tabor was up until two in the morning grinding meat to make green garlic sausage, which he served with sautéed romanesco and Brussels sprouts from the Crescent City Farmers’ Market.
“I’ve never seen that!” exclaims customer Frank Walker, pointing to his now-empty plate where romanesco recently sat. Tabor, taking a customary break from the kitchen to chat with his customers, explains romanesco’s relationship to cauliflower. Increasing his, and his customers’, food vocabulary is one fun part of working with local farmers.
Keeping costs low is one reason for crafting a vegetable-centric menu. “I wanted my friends to be able to eat here,” says Tabor, “and meat is expensive.” Though he is adding more meat to the menu these days — such as house made beef belly bacon, a side of which costs $2 — because, he says, that’s what people want.
True to its name, the Sneaky Pickle offers a pickle plate of seasonal vegetables ($5) and they make the sauerkraut for their tempeh Reuben. “Sauerkraut is the window into fermentation,” says Tabor. He wants to get more into preserving, fermentation, and making vinegar.
Tabor’s not planning anything in particular for Carnival season, in part because his menu is heavily dictated by what he buys from local farms. But he will be open to feed hungry parade-goers, many of whom will no doubt order a stalwart item on the menu — the beet flatbread — which was chosen specifically for the purple of its signature ingredient. Purple, after all, is one of the three colors of Carnival, which also makes it a New Orleans color.
4017 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, LA
Eve Abrams is a radio producer, writer, and educator who makes stories in her adopted hometown, New Orleans.