This Florida Fine Dining Restaurant Garnished Dishes With Ferns That Dogs May Have Peed On

A high-end restaurant in Tampa, Florida, has been partaking in some rather unsavory practices.

Kō, an omakase and kaiseki spot from the same owners behind the Michelin-starred Kōsen, has been garnishing plates with foxtail ferns taken from a plot of land behind the building, the Tampa Bay Times reported on Wednesday. While the plants aren’t meant to be eaten, they come from an area where dogs often relieve themselves, and where they may have been sprayed with chemicals like pesticides and insecticides.

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“We understand that the use of outdoor plants in a dining setting may raise questions about sanitation,” Max Lipton, Kō’s director of operations, told the Times in a statement. “We take community feedback seriously and recognize the importance of public perception in our operations. To address these concerns proactively, we have decided to discontinue using these local plants as garnishes in the future.” (One of the owners told the newspaper on Friday that he wasn’t aware the restaurant was using the local ferns.)

Of course, as part of the practice of kaiseki, there’s a desire by the chef to use the tasting menu as an expression of time and place in nature both with the food and visually. And in the plating of the dishes, its common to include garnishes that bring nature right to the plate, such as with Michelin two-starred kaiseki restaurant n/naka’s zensai course, where season ingredients are nestled among branches. And in Western fine dining, Noma’s rise led to many restaurants using foliage-filled platings for visual impact.

The restaurant had been plating the ferns as far back as 2023, when it first opened, and as recently as April, the Tampa Bay Times noted. Back in January, Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation issued a “stop sale” order to Kō “due to food originating from an unapproved source,” according to records viewed by the outlet. The report called out “pine branch used as garnish from back of restaurant,” and said that the issue was “corrected on-site.”

Still, Kō continued to plate the foxtail ferns, raising a slew of ethical, legal, and safety questions. Managers for the apartment complex where the ferns are located told the Times that they hadn’t given the restaurant permission to clip them. And while many city and state agencies didn’t answer the newspaper’s questions, the director of communications for the Association of Food and Drug Officials said that “there are a whole host of issues with the practice you have described.” Plus, chefs and others in the restaurant industry think that it’s simply a bad look.

On the health and safety side of things, “my concern is that if they are harvesting it from a neighboring apartment complex, there is no telling what insecticides or other chemicals (such as heavy metals or petrochemicals) may be present in the soil where the ferns are growing,” Marc S. Frank, an extension botanist at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, told the Tampa Bay Times.

It’s not likely that Kō was trying to endanger its customers, but it may take more care with its sourcing practices moving forward.

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