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Let Them Eat Kale

Stephanie Curtis - January/February 2014

Paris—Not since the 18th century agronomist Antoine Parmentier waged a campaign to put the once-vilified potato on French tables has such a simple commodity benefited from such intense lobbying. This time, the subject is not a tuber, but Brassica oleracea, aka kale, darling of American organic farmers, symbol of a certain green attitude. That is, in the United States. If this cabbage cousin needs no introduction from Brooklyn to Berkeley, it was nearly unheard of in France until recently. “Eat More Kale” hasn’t yet become an everyday slogan here in the land of haute cuisine, but thanks to the enthusiasm of one resourceful Yankee implanted in the French capital, this nutrition-packed leafy green is currently making headway.

When Kristen Beddard arrived in Paris in 2011 (having quit her job as an advertising account manager in New York City to follow her executive husband here), she was surprised and chagrined to discover that the green she had eaten since childhood (“Mom was a macrobiotic!”) was nonexistent in French markets.

“It seemed so strange that this vegetable we eat all the time in the U.S. wasn’t available here. No one even knew what it was,” says Beddard, who set about showing pictures of her favorite veggie to produce sellers and restaurant owners. Not only did no one recognize this oddity, no one appeared to care about it. There didn’t even seem to be a French name for it, which was, in itself, a telling sign. This “légume oublié” had been forgotten for good reason, erased from the French collective culinary memory along with other wartime survival staples, including Jerusalem artichokes and boiled cabbage.

But Beddard wasn’t easily discouraged, even when one producer laughed in her face when she suggested that he plant kale. “Besides,” she adds, “I was out of a job and wondering what I’d do with my life here for the next five years.” So, using a talent for “branding” garnered from her advertising experience, Beddard launched the “Kale Project” from her home computer in early 2012, quickly rallying enthusiasm among kale-deprived U.S. expats, and timidly kindling interest among the reticent French.

The soft-spoken crusader managed to convince one, then another, farmer to grow kale. “I tried growing it years ago, but no one bought it,” said Joël Thiébault, farmer/supplier to Paris’ top chefs, who has now begun growing it again. Beddard organized kale events, including a kale evening at the chic Verjus restaurant, and posted “kale spottings” on her site. “Before Kristen, the only place I’d ever seen kale in Paris was in the Parc Monceau, where it was planted as an ornamental,” said one fan.

The New York Times picked up on this quirky quest and introduced Beddard to Alain Passard, the Michelin three-star chef known for his way with vegetables. The encounter incited a six course kale lunch at Passard’s L’Arpège restaurant with a notable French food critic and the Times reporter who dubbed the founder of the Kale Project the “Joan of Arc of kale.”

“When you think about it,” says Beddard, about as far from a “militant” as one could imagine, “it’s all pretty funny.” And what’s next? She’s been contacted recently by correspondents across Europe and even in Mexico ready to take up the kale gauntlet in their countries. Meanwhile, she’s working on developing a line of healthy snacks, starting with, of course, kale chips. “When I started the Kale Project, I had no illusions about ever making any money out of it, but if it leads to something, why not?”