PARIS – In third grade, when asked to associate the first letter of her name with what she most identified with, Kristen Beddard stood up proudly. “My name is Kristen, and I like kale,” she said, much to the bewilderment of her classmates. A longtime vegetarian with a macrobiotic mother, Beddard grew up familiar with the health food scene in the US. But after leaving her life in New York to expatriate to Paris with her husband, she realized one thing was missing in the City of Light – a precious leafy green known as kale.
After discovering that the plant was indigenous to Europe and quite easy to grow (winter frost actually makes it taste sweeter instead of killing it), Beddard launched The Kale Project earlier this year to reintroduce the forgotten vegetable to the Parisian food scene.
Kale is part of the cabbage family, with several varieties that today, in France, function largely as decorative plans in gardens. The health benefits of the plant, however, exceed those in most other green vegetables. Rich in vitamins A, C, K as well as fiber, calcium, and a slew of other minerals, it tops even spinach in terms of health perks. The French, however, have seemingly ignored kale for years, with few markets in the country offering the green.
Often found as an ornamental plant or as feed for livestock, there is no clear cut explanation for why the green fell out of favor. Pastry chef and Paris food blogger David Lebovitz has written about the trials of finding kale in Paris. “I think Parisians don’t embrace kale because they don’t have a fondness for very strong flavors, such as those found in bitter greens,” he said.
Motivated by passion, Beddard has made it her personal mission to start cultivating and selling kale at local markets in tandem with local farmers. She hopes that the trendiness of the plant in restaurants from New York to Los Angeles will help to attract Parisian consumers.
A Penn State graduate turned New York advertising accounts manager, Beddard doesn’t fit the profile of someone who would be plowing the fields to grow kale. “I’m this girl from New York. I don’t like being in the dirt. I don’t want to be a farmer. I just know it’s an awesome vegetable,” she said.
Kale also runs in the family. Beddard’s uncle is one of the largest organic farmers on the East Coast, further supporting her cred as a kale ambassador to France. “I think it’s a huge opportunity to bring something to this country where food is so important,” she said.
After securing seeds from England, Beddard managed to find two French farmers at local Parisian markets who expressed interest in The Kale Project. This past weekend, she successfully delivered the first batch of seeds to one of the farmers who specializes in organic produce, hoping that a successful harvest will mean kale at the markets within the coming months.
If the farmers manage to produce successful crops for the market, Beddard’s next task is an education campaign aimed at creating awareness about what kale is and how it can be used. Through grassroots campaigns, pamphlets, and social media, she hopes The Kale Project will function as a brand to educate the French. “I want people to recognize that this is something new and different, and that it’s a partnership with somebody who is bringing something new to France,” she said.
She has also reached out to popular restaurants in Paris like Verjus and Coutume Café, creating excitement among chefs who are eager to use the green. She’s also looking to get major chefs across Europe and the US to submit photos and recipes to help show consumers how kale can be used in daily meals.
Far from a food trend like hamburger or bagels in Paris, Beddard hopes that kale will go the way of the parsnip, becoming widely accepted in French cooking and in markets across the country. “If the idea of kale education and me telling the story is irrelevant in two years, then I’ve done my job,” she said.
Her end goal is to have kale consistently made available in Paris and eventually in France, but the project hasn’t even taken root yet, and Beddard is taking it one step at a time. “I’m just trying to get the seeds in the ground,” she said.
Photo: The Kale Project