From core mirepoix component to stalwart of meat and three-veg dinners, to simple snack, the humble carrot is as versatile as it is universal. But as good as a bunch of carrot sticks in the lunchbox might be, chefs around the country are recasting this root vegetable in new, exciting roles.
Some of these guises are subtle – see the hasselback carrots with mountain pepper at Sydney's newly opened Mary's Underground – while others, such as the Dutch-carrot soufflé with scampi roe served by Phil Wood at Pt Leo Estate on the Mornington Peninsula, push the boat out a little further. All demonstrate that the carrot is, more than ever, deserving of top billing.
"Carrots are such a wonderful ingredient with a distinctly sweet flavour: it's nice to do something with them," says Wood, who cites a Fernand Point recipe for an artichoke Charlotte as the inspiration for his soufflé. "People are quite surprised by it. It's got such a wonderful texture because it's quite light and the flavour sings through."
Carrot-as-hero sightings in Australia may be peaking, but the interest is part of a longer-term trend of big-name chefs exploring the ingredient's potential. An early signature at the original Noma in Copenhagen, for example, was a dish of vintage carrot and chamomile, built around a gnarled heirloom carrot that was pan-roasted for two hours while being regularly basted in goat's butter. At Eleven Madison Park in New York, meanwhile, Daniel Humm served a carrot tartare, with whole carrots minced tableside and plated with a DIY condiment selection.
A renewed interest in heirloom vegetables has also helped fuel the carrot fire. Colourful and colourfully named varieties – "atomic red" and "purple dragon", say – have caught the eye of visually-minded cooks, but many still place their faith in the sweetness of the classic Dutch-orange variety.
At Margaret River cellar-door restaurant Arimia, Evan Hayter serves a carrot tartare starring chopped slow-roasted carrots bound with an emulsion of carrot juice, estate honey and olive oil. It's a dish that's as much about providing vegetarians with something meaty as it is celebrating and supporting the work of local organic grower, Jema McCabe: many of the carrots used in the dish are thinnings and deformed specimens she would otherwise have trouble selling.
"People forget how good produce can be," says Hayter, a big believer in chefs working with rather than dictating to farmers. "More and more, I'm seeing that's what my role is about. I want people to know that when they come to Arimia, they're going to have the best of what can be farmed."
Although estate-grown ingredients have been a cornerstone of Arimia's drive for self-sufficiency – the restaurant runs off the grid and rears its own pigs and trout – the establishment of a large biodynamic garden this year is a milestone for both the kitchen and the guests.
"We're going down the line of making vegetables the star," says Hayter. "We don't have much choice. As we go down the path of farming everything on the property, it's less about options. I like exploring vegetable dishes a lot more."
Chef Adam Wolfers, who recently took the helm at Brisbane's Gerard's Bistro after years in the Bentley empire in Sydney (including a stint overseeing the all-vegetarian menu at Yellow), is another cook excited by plant-based possibilities.
"When you get a nice piece of steak, there's only really one way to cook it," he says. "With a carrot, you can cook it a thousand different ways."
The carrot schnitzel served during Wolfers' Ételek pop-ups is perhaps the best-known of his thousand-or-so vegetable preparations. Inspired by the Wiener schnitzels he ate as a child ("my grandmother used to make the best Vienna schnitzel in Australia"), Wolfers roasts whole carrots in a steam oven, dips them in buttermilk, rolls them in sourdough breadcrumbs seasoned with paprika and garlic, then fries them crisp and golden.
Although he's not planning on serving the schnitzel at Gerard's Bistro – by the time you read this, his dish of coal-oven roasted carrots with red zhoug and house-made Egyptian-style karish cheese should be on the menu – he is considering adding it to the menu at Gerard's Bar.
Carrots are also a go-to for Hobart-based fermentation zealot Adam James who, like many chefs, thinks a pickled carrot is a good carrot.
"Carrots ferment beautifully and maintain their crunch and integrity as a vegetable," he says. "Fermenting also increases the bioavailability of carrots which makes them even better for you than in their raw state."
Apart from lacto-fermenting carrots in brine, James has also used the tops and stems in gundruk, the Nepalese dry ferment, and turns nukazuke carrots (a Japanese preservation technique that ferments vegetables in a bed of rice bran) into a powdered seasoning mix.
Mat Lindsay, chef at Ester in Sydney, has experimented with carrot fermentation, too, but he believes that fire brings out the vegetable's best (although the house-made vegan XO sauce, reduced buttermilk emulsion, parsley and wakame oil he serves with his roasted carrots probably play their parts, too).
"Carrots in a woodfired oven are next-level stuff," he says. "Their high sugar content means they char and crisp really easily. Because we cook everything à la minute, a baby Dutch carrot is the perfect size and cooks quite quickly. We try not to cook them too long so there's still snap."
Whatever flavour potential a single carrot may hold, the main drive behind the vegetable's new-found appeal among chefs may be the same thing that makes it so attractive to home cooks: affordability.
"I'm not sure if people understand, but even secondary cuts have gotten so expensive," says Lindsay. "You can get vegetables at a much better price. Everyone's seeing more value in them."