Chow Bella

Chef Chrysa Robertson Barters with Customers for Mulberries, Pecans, Zucchini and More

Social media experts often recommend that restaurateurs get interactive with customers through Yelp, Facebook, and Twitter. Well, how's this for good old-fashioned interaction?

Chrysa Robertson, chef-owner of Rancho Pinot in Scottsdale, does what she calls "backyard barter" -- encouraging customers and friends to bring her the surplus fruits and veggies they've grown in their backyards in exchange for a little somethin' somethin'. Maybe an appetizer or a glass or two of wine.

Robertson says customers love to feel as if they're an integral part of the restaurant and that they've earned bragging rights when their "stuff" goes by on a plate. It's a win-win. Food doesn't go to waste, customers see their hard work put to excellent use and they get to taste their own goodies prepared in new ways.

Nine times out of 10, she receives citrus, but she's also been given pecans, flowers, and boatloads of zucchini. She swears backyard citrus is the best because it stays on the trees longer, which means it gets much sweeter and juicier.

Right now, Robertson is offering a heavenly dessert that makes use of the mulberries that come from her friend Raimie's tree. Raimie lives in Robertson's aunt and uncle's old house near Arcadia, which was built by Robertson's grandfather in the '50s. Right next door sits Robertson's grandfather's house (which he also built), and the tree grows on the property line between the two. It's clear that these deep connections make those mulberries all the sweeter!

Here are Robertson's own words about her heavenly panna cotta, which I tried (and adored) this time last year ($8).

My absolutely favorite way to enjoy mulberries is with panna cotta (a light, egg-less, Italian-style custard). I make a lemon verbena-vanilla bean panna cotta (the lemon verbena from my own garden), served with spiced citrus syrup colored with a bit of crushed mulberries. I surround the panna cotta with a bit of syrup, some fresh mulberries (sometimes white mulberries from another friend's yard in Mesa!) and a few slices of candied kumquats (from my uncle's trees) . . . . so pretty and jewel-like. Mulberries have this musky, not-too-sweet, deep flavor that I think is best enjoyed simply. With it, I serve cookies made with Meyer lemon zest, rosemary & polenta.

This one won't last long, so you better hustle. If you don't make it over, don't worry. Robertson will offer some version or other of panna cotta all summer, changing up the fruits.

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Nikki Buchanan