Leanne Valenti’s journey to Bento + Picnic began in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. She was in Japan on a homestay after just completing culinary training at The Natural Epicurean. While waiting for a train to Tokyo, hunger struck, and she grabbed an ekiben, a boxed lunch sold at train stations. Fast food of a whole different order, ekiben are boxes composed of five to nine unique dishes, all specialties of the region.
The brilliance of the concept was not lost on the young chef. She savored every last bite and spent much of the following three years back in Austin dreaming and plotting about what a bento that showcased the best ingredients of Central Texas would contain. In January of this year, Valenti launched BENTO + PICNIC, which offers bento box lunches that are made with the highest-quality, non- GMO and organic ingredients sourced from Texas’ finest farmers and producers. Each box includes three seasonal vegetables, a sustainable protein, and a gluten- free starch. We caught up with this busy lady recently to hear a little more about the vision behind BENTO + PICNIC, plus get some inspiration for our own cooking for spring and summer!
Tell us about the product you make—what’s special about it?
I use ancient Japanese principles when I design menus. Every bento includes five colors, five tastes and is cooked with five elements. This philosophy has been a really formative part of my training, and I do it quite instinctively now. I find these guidelines foster my creativity. For example, when I needed to add something to my menu that was red, sweet and cooked over an open flame, those parameters challenged me to develop the Honey Ginger Carrot recipe.
For the diner, what is so beautiful about eating meals cooked by these guidelines is that they’re naturally healthy. Having all the five flavors hit your palate (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent) is wonderfully satisfying on a physiological level so there’s not the desire to overindulge. All the colors (red, yellow, green, white, black) represent a wide variety of nutrients. And using all the elements (earth, tree, water, fire, metal) means varying our cooking methods (ie. pickled, raw, water-based, open flame, dry heat), so you are guaranteed not to sit down to a meal that’s all been deep fried.
What does “sustainable” mean to you?
In the long run, for anything to be sustainable, there has to be a strong community behind it who has a plan for how inspire the next generation to make it their own.
What do you find most rewarding about making food?
Knowing that people will enjoy it, and it will give them good energy and nourishment.
What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by people like you who want to create good food for a living?
For me, it’s balancing creativity and control. I’m a devotee of both the whimsy and delight of the creative process and ultimately aware that tangible outcomes result from keeping track of the numbers and maintaining a pragmatic edge.
This obstacle is part of every creative pursuit, but I think it’s especially challenging for chefs because we operate our business on tight margins and our inventory is highly perishable, yet the changing seasons, consumer trends and our creative drive constantly implore us to take new risks.
Why should we buy local?
Local ingredients are way more fresh and flavorful. Plus, sourcing locally comes with the privilege of being able to go to the farms where your ingredients are grown and to get to know the people producing them. Farmers are so wise to the ways of the earth and there’s a lot to be learned from them!
What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?
Knife skills 101. Seriously, it changed my life. Knowing how to use a knife is empowering and makes cooking easier and more fun.
My vision for a better, stronger food system includes a resurgence of home cooking, and everyone acquiring knife skills is key to that happening. Here is one of my favorite resources for teaching knife skills.
What are some of your favorite local products?
I love Kosmic Kombucha. I have such a great association with it, because when I was working at Sway I would have it at the end of shift instead of a beer, and it was always so refreshing and so rewarding.
Lucky Layla butter is a game changer for sure. I built the Honey Butter Cornbread recipe around it.
Boggy Creek Farm’s smoked tomatoes are genius. I developed the Smoked Tomato Chutney for the Pulled Pork recipe just to be able to use them non-stop.
What’s your favorite dish to cook at home using seasonal ingredients?
Fried egg on toast with a quick chop of whatever veggies are in season, fresh cracked pepper, salt and a squeeze of lime.
Nopalito, bean & egg taco on corn tortilla with salsa verde. Ask for this at Tacos Guerrero (the orange truck at Pleasant Valley & Cesar Chavez), and you will not be disappointed.
Favorite book about food:
The Flavor Bible
Time for Dinner: Strategies, Inspiration, and Recipes for Family Meals Every Night of the Week
Favorite spring/summer fruit/veggie:
Tomatoes! Peaches! And Basil! You can look forward to all three of these ingredients in your bentos in the coming season!