The great French chef Paul Bocuse, dismissing what he saw as young chefs' excessive efforts to be creative, once told me there were already "300 ways to cook carrots, so we don't need more."

If he looked around today, he might think again, or at least increase his tally by a few hundred. At the Boston restaurant Clio, Ken Oringer is serving an entree of heirloom carrots cooked in goat butter and topped with hay that is then ignited. At Stella Rossa Pizza Bar in Santa Monica, Jeff Mahin salt-roasts carrots, as one might a fish, and dresses them with a Burgundy-mustard vinaigrette, a dish that customers often order to share along with pizza, as a main course.

Carrots, those little spark plugs in a salad or a stew, have suddenly become an engine driving restaurant menus. Chefs across the country are showcasing handsome, meaty specimens in a rainbow of colors, dressed and garnished without a sliver of meat or fish. Well, maybe a touch of bacon.

"People are feeling more comfortable with having something like carrots in the center of the plate," said Dan Kluger, the executive chef at ABC Kitchen in New York, where a salad of roasted carrots and avocado has become one of his most popular, and imitated, dishes.

Troy Guard, the chef and owner of TAG in Denver, makes a carrot taco that puts the root vegetable through its paces, with a carrot tortilla and a filling of braised carrots, a salad of raw carrots and cilantro, and guacamole.

"Last year Brussels sprouts were really huge," he said. "Now it's carrots."

Why carrots? Chefs point out that vegetables in general are gaining favor as more Americans try to eat more healthful foods. Carrots have added advantages of being familiar, attractive, versatile and available just about everywhere.

"Everybody likes carrots," Guard said. "You can use them cooked or raw, the colors are great and I can get lots of varieties from local farms."

Roasting, braising, grilling and more extreme forms of culinary invention, typically applied to a pristine slab of hamachi or a rosy duck breast, are now directed at piles of freshly dug carrots.

As good cooks know, "freshly dug" is as important for carrots as "diver" is for sea scallops. Supermarket carrots are fine for the soup pot, but nothing beats local varieties when carrots really count. Cooks prowling in a farmers market won't find many vegetables as eye-catching as bunches of white, yellow, orange, red and purple carrots, from slender minis to knobby standard sizes, with chunky Thumbelinas in between.

Then there is the rich, deep flavor of a fresh carrot, especially this time of year. Carrots, it turns out, have their seasons.

"Summer carrots are not as good as fall carrots," said Alex Paffenroth, who grows them in Warwick, N.Y., in the Hudson Valley, and sells them in New York City Greenmarkets. "They get sweeter in colder weather."

Paffenroth said the mucky earth of upstate New York was better for carrots than the sandy soils in California and Arizona, which require constant irrigation. A number of chefs, including Jimmy Bradley of the Harrison and April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig, use the roots in salads, often with a dusting of seeds or nuts and a creamy dairy topping like yogurt or cheese. At Empellon Cocina, Alex Stupak serves roasted carrots slathered with mole poblano and topped with yogurt and watercress, a dish he says is always in demand.

"I never thought one of my signature dishes would be carrots," he said. "The sweetness of the carrots perfectly balances the bitterness and astringency of the mole."

Like many chefs, Stupak does not peel his carrots, but simply scrubs them.

"These days the skin is pleasantly thick, like sweet potato," he said.

And many cooks have found that the vegetable's dense texture makes it a fine substitute for meat. At Swine, Phil Conlon offers spiced carrot mousse as a vegetarian option on a charcuterie platter. Carrots are famously ground into tartare, at the table, at Eleven Madison Park.

Jason Fox at Commonwealth restaurant in San Francisco said the vegetable also pairs well with red wine. Lately, Fox has been roasting carrots on cedar paper and serving them with a carrot-top pesto. Several other chefs find that even the feathery tops are worth using as an herb in dressings and sauces to drizzle on carrot salads or pasta dishes.

Carrots can start with the crudites and the pickle jar, and carry on through appetizers, salads, entrees and even dessert. Though carrot cakes have been popular for decades and sweet carrot halvah is an Indian staple, chefs like Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan at Provisions, in Houston, are making carrot ice cream and cotton candy. David Bouley is using carrot powder as a sweetener in pastries like macarons and dacquoises.

Guard, creator of the carrot taco, put it best: "Carrots are universal."