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Flavor in Full Bloom

Atlantic City Chef wows diners with edible flowers

Most people use adjectives like vibrant, cheerful, colorful and exquisite to describe flowers. To Paul Hanley, chef de cuisine at Mia, they are downright delicious.

While many restaurants feature flowers as table decorations, Chef Hanley believes they are better used as a part of the meal itself. Over the past month, he has introduced edible flowers to just about every dish at Mia, the Mediterranean-style bistro located just off the main lobby at Caesars Atlantic City.“There’s no doubt that edible flowers are pretty on a plate. But in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, each variety adds its own, subtle flavor to a dish. However, they are expensive so I haven’t gotten to use them much in the past. It was always the type of thing where you were lucky to put one on a dish,” said Chef Hanley, who honed his kitchen skills at Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Hotel and Morimoto before coming to work for Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio at Mia.

Now that Chef Hanley is calling the shots, he’s adding edible flowers to just about every dish on his new summer menu.

“I ordered my first box of edible flowers and went through them in half a night of service,” he laughed. “I was so excited that I was incorporating four or five – or even six or seven – in one dish.”

Mia’s edible flowers are all sourced through The Chef’s Garden, a sustainable direct-from-the-farm grower based in Ohio. The delicate flowers arrive in a plastic container, sitting on a damp cloth, with a small part of the stem still attached to keep them fresh. Before plating, Chef Hanley removes the stem, leaving the bloom which is entirely edible.

While The Chef’s Garden grows more than 36 unique varieties of edible flowers, Chef Hanley is quickly finding his favorites.

“Some are sweet and fruity, some are really savory. I’m enjoying playing around with the flavors and finding ways to use them in my cooking. You can’t just go by how they look – you have to taste them,” he said.

Included among his favorites are Citrus Marigolds, so named both for their bright yellow and orange coloring and their zesty orange flavor. He also enjoys using French Marigolds, which have a mellower flavor profile. Chef Hanley describes bright red violas having a super sweet flavor that is almost cherry-like. He compares the savory tastes of Johnny Jump Ups and Snapdragons to rosemary.

“Everyone loves pansies. Using them in a dish is like using thyme and a pinch of pepper. They add a little spice,” he said.

These flowers and more are featured on Mia’s new summer menu, which Chef Hanley describes as “out of the box and a whole lot of fun.”

The ahi tuna dish is particularly beautiful. It’s seared on an Italian-style flat top grill and topped with ginger sauce. The fish is then served with an herbed creamy risotto cake with garlic sautéed wilted pea leaves. Chef Hanley plays around with the fruity flower blossoms for this dish.

“It’s great to get the bites together,” he said.

A new summer salmon dish features a tomato pesto puree, buttered fava beans and buttered English peas with toasted gnocchi. Chef Hanley incorporates savory flowers into this dish.

“The salmon dish is not the only dish on the menu to incorporate pasta into an entrée where you would not expect it,” he said. “I’m also doing a filet with red wine spaghetti, which is really different and exciting.”

How are Mia’s customers reacting to the changes? The proof is in the numbers.

“We get graded on everything from food quality to menu to presentation every single week,” Chef Hanley said. “I just got scores for the first week of the menu change and they skyrocketed. We are getting great feedback.”

And not just from customers. An executive chef at Caesars told Hanley that he has never seen anything like this in all the years he’s worked with food. He even went so far as to dub Hanley and his team “ballerinas in the kitchen and Picasso on a plate.”

The art of incorporating flowers in food has been traced back to the ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian cultures. With their vibrant colors, textures, scents and flavors, flowers are enjoying a revival as a highly creative culinary ingredient. In the greater Atlantic City region, Chef Hanley and Mia are leading the way.

“A lot of people see a restaurant labeled as ‘Italian’ and think they know what to expect. I want people to know that Mia is so much more than that,” Chef Hanley said. “You’re not going to get your basic mom and pop Italian restaurant fare when you come in. Don’t get me wrong – we have chicken parm. But you’re also going to find things you’ve never seen before.”

Consider Mia for your next Atlantic City meal and see what’s blooming there for you.