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'Vegetable Whisperer' Chef Plants The Seeds Of His Own Reinvention

Chef Jeremy Fox's inventive dish: double-chucked spring peas sprinkled with white chocolate and roasted macadamia nuts. It's served with a bit of pea broth poured on the side, "to retain the crunch." Each pea is shucked, blanched and squeezed to get the halves out. It's a labor preparation that he serves only on special occasions, like Valentine's day.

Some people call Jeremy Fox the "vegetable whisperer," the California chef who can coax remarkable flavors out of every part of his produce, even the flowers and leaves that most chefs throw away. One of his famous first-course dishes combines twice-shucked spring peas with macadamia nuts and white chocolate. He has reinvented cooking with vegetables, and in the process, reinvented himself, too.

On Wednesdays, you'll find Fox at the Santa Monica farmer's market, greeting fellow chefs and checking out the veggies at farmer Alex Weiser's stand. He marvels at the Chinese garlic — right out of the field, still packed with dirt. Then he kibitzes with Weiser about some unconventional tubers: oka, yacon , and colorful Peruvian mashua.

"The mashua is almost in the Nasturtium family, so it's like really spicy, almost like horseradish wasabi," says Fox. "But when you cook it, it mellows out a lot."

"How could I not grow that?" Weiser says.

"Plus, it's fun to say mashua," Fox adds.

Weiser says Fox has inspired him to grow unusual vegetables at his farm in the Tehachapi mountains. "He appreciates flavor and uniqueness and texture," says the farmer. "I think he realizes, too, where we farm, we have snowfall and hard frost, which give our crops flavor, that terroir."

Jeremy Fox is a little like those vegetables — with a hard knock life. The 40-year-old grew up in Cleveland and Atlanta eating fast food, and taking far too many prescription medicines for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In college, he was inspired to start cooking after watching the culinary film, "Big Night." He went to culinary school in Charleston, S.C., then worked in a few restaurants in the South before heading to California. There, he eventually landed a job at the Bay Area restaurant, Manresa, where he actually started out in charge of the meat.

"We were getting in whole pigs and trying to work out charcuterie," Fox recalls, "using every part of the pig, nose to tail."

That philosophy shaped Fox's approach to vegetables when he became chef de cuisine at Manresa. The restaurant had its own farm.

"He would take mushrooms, and smoke them and fry them, and so it took on... a bacon-like texture," says chef Kim Alter, who owns Nightbird restaurant in San Francisco. She worked with Fox at Manresa, and then at Ubuntu, where he became head chef.

"He would cook the vegetables like meat," says Alter. "He would truss them, baste them like meat. And it just really opened your eyes as to how you could treat a radish... like a pig. It was pretty cool. And it was all delicious."

Ubuntu was very California: a vegetarian restaurant located below a yoga studio in Napa. One evening in 2008, then-New York Times food critic Frank Bruni came for dinner. He was impressed.

"Jeremy's a superbly talented chef," Bruni says. "He was determined to make that vegetarian experience as enjoyable as a restaurant with all ingredients at its disposal."

Bruni named Ubuntu the country's second best restaurant outside of New York. Here's an excerpt of his review:

"Ubuntu is proof that you can do away with all flesh and hold on to hedonism, at least if you keep enough butter, cream, cheese and wine at hand. Ubuntu is where virtue meets naughty sensuality. It's the Angelina Jolie of restaurants."

Bruni's review changed everything.

Suddenly, the restaurant was packed, but unprepared. Health inspectors shut it down till they got better refrigeration. But the accolades for Fox kept coming. Food & Wine Magazine named him the best new chef of 2008. He was flown around the country for interviews and events.

But the pressure was too much. Fox says he wasn't sleeping or eating. He lost 40 pounds. His marriage to pastry chef Deanie Hickox fell apart. And he self-medicated with a concoction of sleeping pills and amphetamines. "I could have died from the amount I was taking," he says. "I kinda felt like I was on a plane in horrific turbulence, hanging on to the sides. That's pretty much how I felt every hour of every day, for several years, to where everything was impending disaster. Lots of anxiety, lots of paranoia, and I lost my grip on everything. "

Fox left Ubuntu, and pretty much dropped out of the scene.

"Everything got so negative," he recalls. "I'd been told to take a break or get some help. Eventually, it was like, well, let's just end this."

Fox spent a few years in therapy, cleaned up his act, and moved to Los Angeles. He is now head chef at Rustic Canyon restaurant in Santa Monica. He has a new wife, gourmet buyer Rachael Sheridan, and a 16-month-old daughter named Birdie.

Old friends are happy for him. "Now I think he's got this really amazing balance," says Alter. "He's happy, he's doing great food in an environment he loves and that supports him, with a great, beautiful woman and a child."

And Fox has finally finished the cookbook he started when he was at Ubuntu.

"Finding out I was gonna be a dad was a huge motivator," he says, "to create something that this little kid could be proud of."

With his newly published book "On Vegetables" and a fourth nomination for a James Beard Award, chef Jeremy Fox is back.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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