Chefs say specialty produce items — and the more exotic, the better — dress up a menu as much as serve as a foundation of a restaurant’s identity in a crowded field.

“They’re always in the front of the menu,” said Brian Scheehser, executive chef at the Kirkland, Wash.-based Trellis Restaurant.

Scheehser also grows an array of specialty and mainstream produce items on 18 acres in the outskirts of Kirkland.

“Baby artichokes, chickpeas and other items are really in the forefront of the menu,” he said.

The Trellis features specialties in salads, dips, soups and as building blocks in sandwiches, Scheehser said.

“We’re in downtown Kirkland, so we have a very sophisticated local grower clientele,” he said.

Diners like specialty produce and love locally grown items, Scheehser said.

“Our restaurant is a farm-to table-restaurant, so we have a wide range of items that come in the whole season,” he said.

Chef Sydney Meers, owner of The Stove Restaurant, Portsmouth, Va., said he brings in exotic mushrooms and baby lettuces when they’re in season.

“The baby lettuces spiff up a salad,” he said.

The Stove also features specialty watermelon and icicle radishes.

“The icicles are white and long, about the shape a finger, and they look very unassuming, but they’ll kick you,” Meers said.

But the list of specialty items continues well beyond those items, Meers said.

“We use sea beans — a type of seaweed or grass in the shallow waters — and they’re amazing with fresh sautéed fish or crab,” Meers said.

Ugli fruit also is a regular feature on Meers’ menu, when it’s in season, he said.

Chef creativity with specialty produce is no surprise, said Karen Caplan, chief executive officer of San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Frieda’s Inc.

“Supercreative chefs have always featured unusual ingredients, especially produce. Even mixologists,” Caplan said.

The trend transcends individual chefs, she noted.

“What’s interesting now is more of the regional and national chain restaurants are trying to integrate specialty produce into their menus so they too can stand out,” she said.

Miami-based Coosemans Worldwide has built a business on making specialty produce available to chefs, said James Macek, president of Coosemans Denver Inc.

“We try to pick out five or six items on a monthly basis that we try to maintain price on and get out information, and our distributors can get out that information, and that gives them a four-week window in which they can adapt their menus,” he said.

That includes organic produce, Macek said.

“We’re finding more interest on the organic side in foodservice,” he said.

Part of marketing to foodservice is to make chefs’ jobs easier, said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development with Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties.

“What we do for our foodservice customers is continue to provide added value by offering a larger format on many of our items,” he said.

It might be a 2-pound or a 5-pound modified-atmosphere pack, or a French bean that’s trimmed, as an added value, he added.

“That means that in the kitchen, there’s less knife work, greater shelf life and it’s easier to inventory,” Eagle said.

Vernon, Calif.-based World Variety Produce Inc., which ships product under the Melissa’s label, targets high-end restaurants on the West Coast with its specialty products, said Robert Schueller, public relations director.

“These are the varieties that the chefs are actually looking for, because these are really fine restaurants, and they’re looking for a taste experience,” he said.